Few works of literature, if any, have been attached to as much human suffering and misery as Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.
Translated to “My Struggle”. the book was written by Hitler during his imprisonment 1923 and 1924 following a failed uprising. The two volumes of the book were published in 1925 and 1926 respectively. The book not only laid out Hitler’s political agenda, but would serve as a touchstone for Nazi Germany as it entered World War 2 and the holocaust.
However, the book’s ties to Hitler and the atrocities that followed have also generated a great deal of interest in the book ranging from academics wishing to study it and refute it to people who still believe in Hitler’s cause.
But, as a book, Mein Kampf is copyright protected and its key point in history has given it one of the most unusual and lengthy copyright stories of any creation. However, that story is coming to an end at the closing of this year, making now a good time to look back at over 90 years of history of what can be described as the world’s most hated and most controversial book.
Controversy in Germany
Nowhere is Mein Kampf more divisive and controversial than in Hitler’s native Germany.
After the war, millions of copies of the book were destroyed and Germany. A ban was quickly placed on printing copies of the book (as well as other Nazi propaganda) as the nation worked to distance itself from the war.
After his death in 1945, the entirety of Hitler’s estate was transferred the German state of Bavaria, where he resided at the time. Along with that estate came the copyright in Hitler’s works, including Mein Kampf.
Over the years, the Bavarian Finance Ministry has used that copyright to block reprints of the book (in whole or in part) in Germany.
The country has also taken great steps to reduce the number of imported copies coming into the country, even threatening Amazon and Barnes and Noble for selling copies to Germany customers.
However, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death and, with it, the expiration of the copyright on the book. Come January 1st, 2016, Mein Kampf will be out of copyright in Germany and academics in the country are already planning a reprint.
Those plans, which have been underway for at least five years, may still be blocked by criminal codes that bar the republication of Nazi literature. However, the organization behind the planned reprint, the Institute of Contemporary History, says that their edition will contain some 2,000 pages, 1,200 pages longer than the original, the extra being comprised of thousands of comments from researchers.
Despite that, many in the country are still calling for the publication to be blocked, leaving it’s future in doubt.
In short, even after the copyright expires, it may still be impossible to reprint the book in Germany, even with annotations and critical review.
The United States Story
The United States, however, took a very different approach to the handling of Mein Kampf.
During World War 2, the United States government seized the copyright to the book using the Trading with the Enemy Act. Though works created by the U.S. government are automatically placed into the public domain, the government can still acquire and exploit copyrights and it did so, selling and earning some $20,000 in royalties off of the book during the war.
In 1979, the U.S. government sold the copyright to Houghton Mifflin, a publisher who continues to be in charge of distributing the book in the U.S. today. However, after controversy about their profits from the work, they began to donate all of the profits to charity.
However, unlike Germany, the copyright on the book is not about to expire in the U.S. Here, copyright protection extends for 95 years after publication in these cases and that means it will be under copyright protection until at through 2020.
But, despite copyright protection, the book is still widely available in the United States, both online and in bookstores.
The status of the book elsewhere varies quite a bit and it depends on both the copyright status of the book and whether or not it has been banned by the local government.
The book is outright banned in many countries including Germany, Austria, and Russia. In other countries, such as the United States, Canada and Turkey, the book is widely available.
From a copyright standpoint, the most interesting case is Sweden. There, in 1992 a local publisher, Kalle Hagglund, began printing a Swedish version of the book. The state of Bavaria contacted them, saying that the publication was a copyright infringement. The matter eventually went to court and, though the publication was blocked and the book seized, the matter eventually went before the Swedish Supreme Court.
There, the court reached a very unusual conclusion. It ruled that, while Hagglund did not have the rights to print the book, that Bavaria was not the copyright holder. Since the publisher made a good faith effort to locate the rightsholder and set aside their royalties, Hagglund was cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to continue publishing the book.
This has further muddied the Bavaria’s claims of ownership and has been part of the reason the state has not been 100% successful in enforcing its ban on publication outside of Germany.
Mein Kampf is a difficult topic to discuss or write about. I wrestled a great deal with writing this about everything from wording to image choices.
That being said, the book does clearly have historical value, even if it is a horrible part of history we wish we could forget. Whether we want it to or not, part of that history deals with copyright including how copyright has been seized, used to prevent publication and so forth.
While we shouldn’t base our laws on the exceptions, how we have handled Mein Kampf from a legal standpoint tells us a great deal about what we value in those laws. That alone makes it worth studying.
But those questions become even more important at the end of this year. When the copyright expires on the book (at least in most countries) one of the most powerful tools for preventing its publication will go away. Will new laws be passed to prevent its publication? Will this book be given a special copyright status? Or will the floodgates open for new editions of the work?
Sadly, there are no easy answers here and I don’t pretend to have any of my own. But whatever does happen will have implications far beyond this book and its history. So, whatever we do, we have to act carefully and thoughtfully.