Over the past few months, there have been a bunch of stories about the copyright status of Mein Kampf
, with people fretting
over the fact that the book is about to go into the public domain
. The book, of course, was Adolf Hitler's manifesto, and while few people actually read it
, in Germany it hasn't been published in decades. That's because the US seized the Nazis' publishing house, including its copyright in the book. It then gave that copyright to the state of Bavaria, which has used it to block the publication of Mein Kampf
ever since. But, with Germany being a country where copyright is life+70, and seeing as Hitler died 70 years ago, on January 1, 2016, the book falls into the public domain (in the US, however, Houghton Mifflin apparently still retains the rights
-- because nothing ever goes into the public domain here).
Either way, now there's another copyright dispute concerning a top Nazi: Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda. It turns out that while his copyrights also flip over into the public domain on January 1st of next year, a UK professor, Peter Longerich, just published a new biography of Goebbels, and Goebbels' heirs have come out of the woodwork to demand royalties
, because the book quotes Goebbels' diaries.
Cordula Schacht – a lawyer whose own father, Hjalmar Schacht, was Hitler’s minister of economics – is suing Random House Germany and its imprint Siedler, over the book Goebbels, by Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Longerich, an authority on the Holocaust and Nazi era Germany, drew extensively on Goebbels’ diaries in his biography, which was published in Germany in 2010. Now those same passages from the diaries are set to appear in the English edition, which Penguin Random House UK and its imprint Bodley Head will publish on 7 May.
Most of the debate focuses on whether or not it is appropriate for money to "go to a war criminal," as Random House's top lawyer complains. There is also some discussion of who owns the copyright, as some believe that when the US seized the Nazis' publishing house and got the copyright on Mein Kampf, it also got the copyright on Goebbels' works.
Unfortunately, what's not discussed at all is how fair use should
take care of a situation like this. Tragically for both Germany and the UK, neither have fair use. The UK does have a narrowly targeted "fair dealing" concept that likely does not cover this kind of scholarly publication.
Yet, this seems to show just why fair use is such an important concept. Being able to have academic experts properly quote historical source material in writing up biographies and other analyses of historical events and people seems like a no brainer for anyone hoping to properly study and record history. Using copyright to try to lock up such information (or to put a tollbooth on it) only serves to massively limit the ability of our society to accurately study and learn from history -- especially history as tragic as Nazi Germany.