Copyreich

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Who owns the intangible assets created by war criminals and their supporters? Does anyone? Copyright was established as a means of encouraging talented minds to create works of art, and to contribute to human civilization by making their works available to the public, by offering them the exclusive privilege of selling those works. However, with copyright comes also the right to withhold from the public any works which the author or the copyright owner may regret were ever created.

Adolf Hitler, German dictator 1933-1945, brought immense destruction and suffering upon civilization by starting World War II in his quest for German domination in Europe and elsewhere. Many years before the war, he had disclosed his opinions and agenda in his book Mein Kampf (Eher-Verlag, 1925). During Hitler's regime, owning and properly displaying a copy of the book at home became a sign of allegience to the party, and ultimately some 10 million copies had been printed. It is being reported that few actually read it.

According to some speculations, maybe the war and the associated holocaust could have been avoided, had more people cared to read the book in time. Of course, even today we can not know that for sure. For whatever it may be worth, reading Mein Kampf today could perhaps provide us with some retrospective insight into the causes of the war. At least, it should not make things worse.

However, reading a book usually requires obtaining a physical copy of it, and someone has to print that copy. This is where copyright enters the picture. Like any other author or artist in a country with appropriate legislation, Adolf Hitler obtained the exclusive rights to his book simply by writing it. He thus had the right to decide who would be allowed to print and distribute copies.

Since Adolf Hitler died in 1945, his copyright was transferred to a new owner, but due to the legal turmoil in Germany following the defeat in World War II, it is even today unclear who that owner was, and who it is today. One claimant has been Adolf's sister Paula Wolf. Another is, for political reasons, the Bavarian Ministry of Finance.

Is the notion of copyright even relevant under such dire circumstances as these? By recognizing Hitler's copyright, we recognize his authority to dictate, with implications long after his death, who should be able to read his words. Hypothetically, if he had explicitely refused jews to touch Mein Kampf, any Israeli publishing house would by force of his copyright be legally prevented from publishing it in any language, and an unauthorized translation of the book into Hebrew may even be seen as an infringement upon his moral rights as an author.

Obviously, yielding even that much authority to Hitler's wishes would be an assault on our moral values, whether legally necessary or not. Can we still exercise that very same right for other purposes, such as suppressing Hitler's words altogether, or printing the book while letting the proceeds go to some charitable cause, either disregarding the author's wishes, or pretending to actually fulfil them, according to some twisted sense of logic? Hardly. The copyright must emanate from the author, or from nobody at all. We cannot change Hitler's wishes, but we can freely decide whether to obey them, preferrably without damaging the rights of others in the process.

As of this writing, the Swedish supreme court has found publication of Mein Kampf to infringe upon Hitler's copyright, even though no claimant to that copyright has stepped forward and been found to be the proper owner, much less filed suit against anybody for infringing upon that right.

If this interpretation of copyright law prevails also in other countries, scholars and other parties with a legitimate interest in reading the book are in effect restricted to pirate editions printed since 1945 or copies of pre-war editions that may still be in circulation. The same should apply to any other books or works of art produced by war criminals and others who have disappeared or died without leaving a clear indication of who may have inherited their estates.

Can our intellectual society condemn piracy while at the same time rely on and even encourage it for the purpose of getting access to historical facts?

Grey Day

Do you appreciate the wealth of art, entertainment and information found on the Internet? While some people may enjoy producing such material for nothing in return at all, the vast majority of the stuff available out there comes at a price - the price of you and me respecting the wishes of authors and artists not to have their works copied or plagiarized without their consent. Please take a moment or two and consider what the World-Wide Web would be like if copyright didn't exist - if every day were like Grey Day.

This particular page may not be a good example of a work dependent on colourful graphics - if it looks gray to you, it's because you (or your browser) has chosen gray as your default background colour. Unlike many other web pages, my page doesn't tell you what colour to pick; if you prefer pink text on a green-and-yellow-striped background, that's up to you to decide - I don't have a degree in visual ergonomics. Likewise, I have intentionally limited my graphics to what I consider relevant to the topic at hand. Some people may rightfully consider this page dull, which means that I can hardly make it much duller even for the purpose of Grey Day observance.

Still, I want to pay attention to the financial and moral rights of others, and doing so without losing your sense of proportion is in fact what this page is all about. Technically, I may be considered guilty of infringing upon Hitler's moral or financial rights with respect to his alleged "authorship" to the German nazi flag that I have used in part above, but if that is the law, then the law is in need of a good spanking. Dead dictators have copyright too, but let's not overdo it, please?


Updated 1999-01-12
Anders Andersson