Anne Frank or Why We Need Copyright

Ever since the French versions of The Diary of a Young Girl were illegally published online in October 2015, there has been plenty of discussion about whether Anne Frank’s diary became public domain on the January 1 of this year. However, the French politician Isabelle Attard and Olivier Ertzscheid of University of Nantes have both published the diary online and refuse to comply to Anne Frank Foundation’s demands.

The copyright law in Europe differs from its American counterpart in that the copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death (although this does vary slightly from country to country) when in the United States, The Diary of a Young Girl becomes public domain 95 years after the year it was first published. Hence, there is no confusion that The Diary of a Young Girl will become public domain in the United States of America on a later date.

The conflict arises from the fact that Anne Frank isn’t the sole copyright holder of The Diary of a Young Girl most of us find in their bookshelves. Anne’s father Otto Frank compiled the original version published in 1947 out of Anne’s original and revised diaries, and since this required certain creativeness, the copyright law recognizes him as a co-author. Otto Frank died in 1980, and therefore the work won’t become public domain until 2050. Another version compiled by Mirjam Pressler from 1991 will be copyrighted for an even longer period of time, as Pressler is still alive. Translations of these versions have copyrights of their own, because of the artistry that goes into translation.

From a juridical point of view, Anne Frank Fonds, the organization now holding the copyright, appears to have a case against Attard and Ertzscheid, who do not recognize Otto Frank as a co-author. According to Attard, “saying now the book wasn’t written by Anne alone is weakening the weight it has had for decades, as a testimony to the horrors of this war.” However, Anne Frank Fonds, might have a motive to honour its founder Otto Frank by not wishing to deny the work that went into building the diary out of the fragments that have remained. The way I see it, Attard’s worry over the novel’s reputation seems uncalled for, considering the fact that Otto Frank merely helped to publish his daughter’s diary in a cohesive and coherent form without any unnecessary additions on his part.

But what about the original diaries and manuscripts of Anne Frank? Unfortunately, since her own writings weren’t published until 1986, the posthumous copyright grants them 50 years of copyright from the time they were published. They won’t become public domain until 2036.

What Attard and Ertzscheid are trying to show is that in their opinion copyright’s expiration date should be determined by the time of death of the author with the largest contribution to the work, who in this case would be Anne Frank. However, this is not the current law and changing it would deny the copyright from academics like Ertzscheid himself if he ever wished to write annotated version of a work that is in public domain, as well as from translators wishing to translate them, and countless other people who would in today’s system be granted a copyright. It would greatly discourage the study of public domain literature.

Anne Frank Fonds is being accused of greediness in holding the copyright for The Diary of a Young Girl but whatever money it produces from the novel and the rights does not go into the pocket of some greedy capitalist, as the foundation has been granted the status of non-profit organization. The profit goes to support educational and charitable organizations and their projects and a list of some of them can be found on Anne Frank Fonds –website. Whether it would be more charitable to let The Diary of a Young Girl slip into the public domain for people to use, I wouldn’t be too sure.

It is yet to be seen whether Anne Frank Fonds bothers to sue Attard or Ertzscheid. My guess is they won’t, because a court case on Otto Frank’s authorship would, as Attard predicts, give bad publicity to Anne Frank and her diaries. As Yves Kugelmann of Anne Frank Fonds reported to The Guardian that the foundation has been “fighting for 40 years against Holocaust deniers who have said the book is a falsification” and therefore suing Attard or Ertzscheid would be an act of throwing food into a fire one wishes to extinguish. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Conclusively, no matter how we wished The Diary of a Young Girl to have become public domain simultaneously with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the fact is that Anne Frank Fonds will be able to hold on to the copyright for the time being. While some might find it upsetting, it is a necessary law if we wish the writers to keep on writing into the future. If we were to abolish it, The Diary of a Young Girl might be one of the last significant works of social commentary to encourage a change in society.

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