That Time Hitler Used Copyright Law To Block Future Senator Alan Cranston From Publishing Mein Kampf

from the wtf dept

We’ve written in the past about the somewhat bizarre copyright history of Adolf Hitler’s infamous book Mein Kampf. The copyright is currently held by the state of Bavaria (which got it from the US government after the US seized the Nazis’ publishing house at the end of World War II). Bavaria has used the copyright to bar the publication of the book in Germany for decades. However, in the past few months, extra attention has been paid to it because the copyright is set to expire at the end of the year, putting the book into the public domain in Germany.

But, apparently, that’s not even the most interesting story about copyright and Hitler. David Post has a fascinating post about copyright as censorship, which starts out about the Katz v. Chevaldina case that we’ve written about in the past. It involved Ranaan Katz, the partial owner of the Miami Heat, who was upset about comments a blogger, Irina Chevaldina, was making about him on her blog. Katz went so far as to acquire the copyright on an “unflattering photo” that Chevaldina had used in a blog post mocking him and then sued Chevaldina (and Google, which hosted the blog on its Blogger platform, but was eventually dropped from the suit) for infringement. This was after Katz had tried and failed to sue Chevaldina for defamation. So, instead, he decided to use copyright law to censor her. It was a perfect example of what Matthew Schruers has shrewdly called copyright “immigration,” where people who can’t censor people through other laws turn to copyright as a last resort.

The amazing thing was that it actually worked at first. The court sided with Katz and issued a ridiculously broad injunction, raising questions about copyright misuse and (of course) the First Amendment. Eventually, though, the court got it right, noting that the use of the photo was clearly fair use. Katz, not getting the message, appealed his SLAPP suit, and it’s now before the 11th Circuit, which will hopefully make quick work of it. If you want to read more about that, I highly recommend the EFF’s amicus brief and its related blog post.

So… what the hell does all of that have to do with Hitler?

Well, in that article by David Post, he points out that there’s actually a fairly long history of people using copyright for censorship — and it turns out that none other than Adolf Hitler apparently liked to use copyright this way (yes, this post is pre-Godwin’d — deal with it). And, to make this even stranger, apparently Hitler used that copyright-as-censorship/copyright immigration plan against then-news reporter/future Senator Alan Cranston. Cranston himself explained what happened in an interview:

While I was doing my foreign correspondence work, I read Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the book he wrote while he was in prison before he became the dictator, outlining his plans for Germany and the terrible things he intended to do in the world. There was no English language version of it. When I quit journalism and came back to try to get involved in activities in the United States, one day in Macy’s bookstore in New York I saw a display of Mein Kampf, an English language version, which I’d never seen before, which hadn’t existed. I went over to look at it out of curiosity and as I picked it up, I knew it wasn’t the real book. It was much thinner than the long book that I had read, which is about 350,000 words. So I bought it to see how come. And delving into it I found that it was a condensed version, and some of the things that would most upset Americans just weren’t there as they were in the version I had read, the original, in German.

So I talked to an editor friend of mine in New York, a Hearst editor named Amster Spiro, and suggested that I write and we publish an anti-Nazi version of Mein Kampf that would be the real book and would awaken Americans to the peril Hitler posed for us and the rest of the world. So we did that. I spent eight days [compiling] my version of Mein Kampf from the English language version that I now had, the original German language version, and another copy that had just appeared. A book was then selling for around three dollars normal price. Hitler was getting forty cents royalty for each copy that somebody bought that wasn’t [even] the real thing. We proceeded to print in tabloid the version that I wrote, with a very lurid red cover showing Hitler carving up the world, and we sold it for ten cents on newsstands. It created quite a stir. Some Nazis went around knocking down newsstands that displayed it in St. Louis and the German part of New York and elsewhere in the country. We sold half a million copies in ten days and were immediately sued by Hitler’s agents on the grounds we had violated his copyright, which we had done. We had the theory that [though] he had copyrighted Mein Kampf in Austria, he had destroyed Austria with his army, so we said he destroyed his copyright at the same time. Well, that didn’t stand up in court, and a Connecticut judge ruled in Hitler’s favor. No damages were assessed, but we had to stop selling the book. We got what was called an injunction. But we did wake up a lot of Americans to the Nazi threat.

If you’re interested, the case is Houghton Mifflin v. Stackpole Sons, and it’s an interesting read. The issues are certainly a bit different, but it does show that Hitler and his publishers looked to actively prevent Americans from knowing the full extent of his views… using copyright law. As Post notes:

It was not copyright law?s finest hour ? its Korematsu, one is tempted to say. Hitler gets to continue to receive royalties, and to control publication of his book, 10 weeks before he marches into Poland and war breaks out in Europe. The defendant doesn?t seem to have raised ?fair use? as a defense in the case, relying instead entirely on a theory that because Adolf Hitler was a ?stateless person?, any assignment of his copyright rights was invalid….

It?s hard to know whether there?s something noble about a US federal court going through the arcana of international copyright jurisprudence in order to give Hitler ? even Hitler! ? his day in court, or appalling that it would allow copyright law to be mis-used in a matter of such crucial public importance.

So, now, next time you feel like Godwin’ing any conversation on copyright-as-censorship, feel free to just declare “that’s like something the Nazis would do!” and point to this story.

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Comments on “That Time Hitler Used Copyright Law To Block Future Senator Alan Cranston From Publishing Mein Kampf”

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Ninja (profile) says:

lmao that’s quite interesting… The MAFIAA touted the child porn issue to indirectly get their way and censor the internet but we can say that if you support though copyright laws then you support the Nazi censorship. Glorious!

Obviously it isn’t that simple but the MAFIAA doesn’t care about facts and details so we can skip them a bit and just say “Copyright supports Nazism!”. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant!

I wonder what would be the reaction of the MAFIAA when tasting their own poison…

Oblate (profile) says:

What good does censorship do at this point?

If there are people in Germany who still want to follow that trash, it seems like German society has failed at a much deeper and fundamental level than any copyright law or censorship can fix. Making a big deal about this book coming off of copyright will give it a power that it does not and should not have.

If it is published in any form, maybe its potential damage could be reduced by an annotated version discussing where it’s wrong, the damage caused by the contents of the book, and how ideas like those in the book are best left in the past.

jameshogg says:

If you think this was bad, consider what evil consequences would have unfolded in world history if the Bible or the Koran had been given copyright status.

Every rebellious translation and derivative would be legally crushed if not physically annihilated. The King James version would have had an injunction against it. The Reformation would have had inexcusable legal hurdles to jump.

And everybody knows how vomit-inducing it would have been if Islamofascists resorted to copyright claims of the prophet Mohammed over Charlie Hebdo in the case of a failed assassination.

It is not possible to comprehend the disgusting consequences of all of this. The only reason we pushed passed theocracy into secularism in Christianity (and what will be THE reason that will push Islam past theocracy into secularism too) was open discussion, derivatives and alternative translations of the holy books they claimed was God-mandated and God-copyrighted. Soon enough they learned, and will learn, to take God out of the equation entirely in political and philosophical atmospheres. If you believe God’s holy books are infallible, you have to assume any deviation from them is an infringement, and use any means at your disposal to stop revolutions occurring against your holy order, and that ultimately means using copyright to attack derivative works of the holy books.

This is not an exaggeration. Many Islamofascists will still put people to death for reading translated Korans of any other language than Arabic because it is blasphemous – they may as well say that unauthorised translations are piracy and they infringe on their rights in order to get the end-result of quelling dissent.

No. No. No. Only a fool would think that this is all worth it in the name of defending property rights that can’t even be defended because breaking copyright law is so easy.

Rob says:

Re: Re:

Every rebellious translation and derivative would be legally crushed if not physically annihilated. The King James version would have had an injunction against it. The Reformation would have had inexcusable legal hurdles to jump.

Uhh, you are aware that this was the way things worked, publishers and translators were threatened with death, if not killed?

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: Re:

My point is that copyright would have nonetheless been a useful weapon in the hands of these killers in putting down revolutions.

They couldn’t kill EVERY believer of an opposing religious sect, sure, but they could have curbed their derivative holy books if they had the luxury of copyright law. Forever forbidding more secular derivatives of the holy books from ever seeing the light of day, and forever preserving ignorance and one-sect states.

When we ask the question “would copyright have been a hefty obstacle for reformers?”, the answer can only be “yes”.

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And I should clarify that this is if copyright law were even possible to enforce in the first place, which I believe it is not. This push for literary opposition regardless of the papacy’s probable petty claims of thought-property would have happened even if they had copyright protection.

If it WERE possible to enforce, it would clearly not be desirable for the reasons I’ve given. Copyright is not something that can work and it is not something that we should want even if it did.

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I reckon Godwin’s Law is thrown around too easy. There are legitimate reasons to bring up the Nazi regime, and Hitler’s attempt to use copyright to prevent American’s from knowing about his intentions has grave implications that surely don’t need spelling out. Slogans of “death to fascism” should never be in short supply, and it is hard to mount such protest when you are not allowed to even read about your enemy in your own language. Same with the great religious conflicts of the past 100 years.

If you believe in copyright you have to believe in forbidding certain languages. You have to believe in forbidding derivatives. You have to believe in forbidding blasphemous content that is by definition an “unauthorised infringement”. It is in no way disingenuous to bring up unwelcome powers that copyright advocates themselves claim should be given away so lightly.

These are uncomfortable observations that I have not heard a satisfactory rebuttal for.

frank87 (profile) says:

Re: Copyright Bible

The copyright of the bible is a tricky issue. The christian claim is that Jesus is alive. So most of it in the public domain, but how about Jezus’s quotes? (Is the bible itself infringements of Jesus’s copyright?)
The koran has simular issues because it’s supposed to be directly from Allah. I think most islamic countries think it’s blasfemous to say he died.

Jett Rucker says:

Re: Hitler Not Plaintiff

The sentence is composed for effect. The plaintiff was publisher of the ENGLISH TRANSLATION, Houghton-Mifflin, and they were suing because Cranston (as he did NOT mention) had picked up THEIR COPYRIGHTED translation and just glommed the whole thing into his “book” without their permission (or even acknowledging them?).

Hitler was not a party to this case. Closer to the case were not just the publisher, but their translator, James Murphy, who had become disenchanted with Hitler and the Nazis.

Remember – Cranston, like Hitler, is first and foremost a politician. The sensational sentence is very close to a lie.

why? (profile) says:

Hitler analogies now apply to his victims?

Hundreds of members of the Katz family were hunted and killed by the Nazi’s. Pretty cruel tag work. Consideration really should be given to those who survived pogrom after pogrom based in libel to rob and murder. Likening them to Hitler should ensure you a place in hell. Consideration should also be given to the 1st amendment charlatan who initially served as counsel for Irina. Disturbing how a guy from Sicily gets away with convincing everyone that calling Jews Nazi’s and describing them as Hitler is free speech. He gets a lot of mileage from mentioning they are wealthy too. Sad so many can’t see who the real threat to humanity is here.

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