Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
Hitler's Copyright Fight
Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 01:07 PM
On last week's show we spoke to German media professor Nikolaus Peifer about Hitler's Mein Kampf entering the public domain. Listener Chuck Strinz wrote in to tell us a story about how in 1939, Adolf Hitler's American publisher engaged in a copyright lawsuit against an American journalist who published a tabloid version of the book without permission.
Before Alan Cranston became a US Senator for California, he was foreign correspondent in Germany for the Independent News Service. In a particularly colorful 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cranston recounts seeing an English-language version of Mein Kampf on display at Macy's bookstore in 1939, but when he picked it up,"[he] knew it wasn't the real book because it was much less weighty, it was much thinner. It turned out it had been edited so that a good bit that Hitler wrote was left out."
Cranston was right. A great deal was left out of the English-language version. The English language publication history of Mein Kampf is complex to say the least, but the Houghton Mifflin translation that Cranston saw was, according to UCLA law professor Neil Netanel's book Copyright's Paradox, "a heavily edited, bowdlerized version designed to make Hitler more palatable for British and American readers."
Cranston, who had seen the Nazi party's rise to power in Germany firsthand, decided that he wanted to publish an explicitly anti-Nazi version of the book. Also, unlike the Houghton Mifflin version, Cranston wanted to ensure that no royalties would make their way back to Hitler himself. So he created the Noram Publishing Company and started working on a translation.
At the time, Houghton Mifflin was preparing its own edition of Mein Kampf that included scholarly criticism and annotation in response to controversy over publishing it in the first place. In a note that accompanied a copy of the book that Houghton Mifflin editor Roger Scaife sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he outlines the controversy the company had stoked in publishing the book: "We have had no end of trouble over the book—protests from the Jews by the hundreds, and not all of them from the common run of shad ... although I am glad to say that a number of intellectual Jews have written complimenting us on the stand we have taken."
Cranston says that he dictated his version of Mein Kampf to a cadre of secretaries over the course of about eight days and beat the forthcoming Houghton Mifflin edition to print. The Noram edition was less a proper book than a tabloid meant to inflame public outrage at Adolf Hitler. From the LA Times article:
"We have slashed Hitler's 270,000 words to 70,000," they declared in their forward, "but nothing important is omitted!" The 32-page tabloid edition, copyrighted in 1939, was a "Reader's Digest-like version (showing) the worst of Hitler," said Cranston. He noted that the book contained illustrations and notes showing Hitler's "propaganda and distortions."
Cranston says that the book sold half a million copies in just over a week.
It wasn't long before Houghton Mifflin launched a lawsuit against Noram and another publisher called Stackpole which released its own translation of Mein Kampf at roughly the same time. Both publishers mounted a novel defense, saying that because Adolf Hitler had renounced his Austrian citizenship in 1918 and didn't become a German citizen until 1932 (when the book was published in 1925, he referred to himself in the copyright registration as "a stateless German"), he was ineligible for copyright protections. Cranston also argued that their 10-cent tabloid version of Mein Kampf was not real competition for the forthcoming Houghton Mifflin translation.
Regardless of those arguments, both Stackpole and Noram lost their cases, and according to Cranston, they had to destroy nearly half a million copies of the Noram translation. But it was not long before the United States entered the war, and invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act to seize all royalties meant for Hitler and allocate them to the War Claims Fund, which existed to help P.O.W.'s and refugees.
Royalties for the book continued to go to the War Claims Fund until Houghton Mifflin bought the royalty rights back in 1979. However, after a 2000 US News and World Report article about the royalties received by Houghton Mifflin (provocatively titled "Money From a Madman"), Houghton Mifflin donated the royalties they'd received in the intervening years to charity.