The diary of Anne Frank is just six weeks away from entering the public domain in most of Europe—but it might not happen. The Basel-based Anne Frank Fonds, which owns the copyright, has a plan to retain ownership until 2050.
Anne Frank and her family famously hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam during World War Two. They were ultimately discovered, and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Her father, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust and published her diaries and notebooks.
Most European copyrights end 70 years after the author’s death, meaning that on Jan. 1, 2016, the diary becomes public domain in much of the continent. But the Anne Frank foundation has a new legal strategy to keep its most valuable copyright: declare that Otto Frank is actually a “co-author” of the diaries, not merely an editor. Since Otto Frank died in 1980, anything he authored will stay under copyright until 2050. (The book was first published in the US in 1952, so copyright stateside will last until 2047 regardless of what happens in Europe.)
This weekend’s New York Times carried the news that the foundation is issuing an “early warning” to publishers that they aren’t allowed to freely publish the diary. That’s led to criticism of the foundation, including some who have threatened to begin publishing the diary online, whether the foundation likes it or not.
If the work doesn’t enter the public domain, one big loser will be the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam. The museum is separate from the Anne Frank Fonds foundation, and has had legal disputes with it in the past. The museum has been preparing “an elaborate web version of the diary” for five years, with plans to publish it once the copyright expires.
A spokesperson for the Anne Frank House told NYT they haven’t decided “when or how the results will be published,” but made clear they do not believe “Otto Frank nor any other person is a co-author.”
The foundation was set up by Otto Frank to collect royalties for the diary and give them to different charities. He left the actual books to the Dutch state. It’s not known how much money the foundation makes off the copyright, but the NYT reports that in recent years, the foundation said it donated about $1.5 million annually in recent years.
Otto Frank never claimed any authorship while alive. A foundation board member said the group began asking for legal advice on their copyright six years ago, and was told that Otto could qualify due to his role in “editing, merging and trimming entries” of his daughter’s notebook.
The foundation also created a “definitive edition” of the diary, published in 1991. Mirjam Pressler, the editor who revised, edited, and added more material from the original diary, qualified for a copyright for the new work. In the foundation’s view, that copyright won’t end until 70 years after Pressler’s death.
The foundation says it’s protecting her, “mak[ing] sure that Anne Frank stays Anne,” in the words of one spokesperson.
But the idea that historical figures need to be “protected” from history is manifestly untrue, as was sharply pointed out by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, one of several critics attacking the foundation’s move as “copyfraud.” (And his whole post is worth reading.)
“To treat the words of Anne Frank, who inspired so many millions around the world, as an eternal money-spinner for one organisation’s purposes is to cheapen them,” writes Doctorow. “They’re not an annuity: they’re an inspiration. They can’t be both.”