At the end of this month the diary of Anne Frank will enter into the public domain. Of course, the diary has long been available to the public, in bookstores and libraries. But legally, no new editions or adaptations, plays or movies could be made without a licence from the Swiss Anne Frank Fonds.
This ‘monopoly’ on the diary ends by law at midnight on 31 December 2015. Across Europe, new editions of the diary with fresh commentary, academic insights or popular perceptions of Anne Frank in modern times are being prepared, outside of the Anne Frank Fonds. But the charity is on a mission to make it known that the copyright does not end and the world has it all wrong.
A person who writes a book owns the copyright. This covers the moral right to be respected as the author and a commercial right to decide on exploitation – bring the book to the market. The Anne Frank Fonds inherited the right to exploit the diary. Being a charity it was able to generate a steady income from the sales of the book and thereby further its own cause. It now stands to lose this income. In addition, the copyright allowed it to ‘mastermind’ the legacy of Anne Frank.
The Anne Frank Fonds now claims that, in retrospect, Anne Frank’s father had his own copyright due to his work on the diary before publication. Otto Frank combined two parts of the diary which were entrusted to him after the war, preserving in one version as much of the original text as he could. In doing so, according to the charity, he became a ‘co-author’ under copyright law. In the case of co-authors, copyright ends only after 70 years have passed following the death of the longest-surviving author – in this case, Otto Frank, and not his daughter.
This is obviously a legal construct that has been crafted in the past year or two by lawyers advising the Anne Frank Fonds. Whether there is legal merit in this reasoning will take tough lawyering and hard-contemplated court decisions to establish – this will not blow over, if you consider the responses.
But what about moral merit? The antagonising stance of the charity enrages those who wish access to the material to further science and reach their own audiences. Given the unpopularity of the Anne Frank Fonds, the idea that they will act as the sole guardian of the book for many decades to come is frustrating, and does not help the story of holocaust victims.
There is nothing wrong with defining, and defending, a certain vision of Anne Frank as a holocaust victim; or any other important person or event in our recent human history. It becomes a problem, a strain, if others have similar goals but are sidelined due to strategic licensing. The Anne Frank Fonds has adopted the wrong tone and their present copyright claim is called into question.
What better move for the embattled Swiss charity than to publicly wave any copyrights it may still possess in regard to the diary in order to alleviate the strained relations with publishing houses, academics, writers and film makers?