There’s a legal battle brewing in Europe right now over the copyright of a teenager’s diary.
The Diary of Anne Frank is a book of the writings kept by Anne Frank from 1942–1944 while she hid with her family in an Amsterdam warehouse during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Tragically, Anne’s family was betrayed and apprehended and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 at age 15. When the family’s only survivor, Otto Frank, returned to Amsterdam after the war, he was given Anne’s writings; knowing his daughter’s wish to publish a novel and seeking to preserve Anne’s legacy, he arranged for her diaries and notebooks to be published.
In 1963, Otto Frank set up a foundation called the Anne Frank Fonds in Switzerland in order to collect the diary’s royalties and distribute them to charities. He left the actual diaries and notebooks to the Dutch state.
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. However, the Anne Frank Fonds holds the copyright to The Diary of Anne Frank and has recently alerted publishers that not only is Otto Frank the editor, but he is also the co-author of the book. As Otto Frank died in 1980, this means that anything he authored will stay under copyright until 2050.
If the copyright is extended, this would prevent others from being able to publish the book without paying royalties or getting permission.
Critics of the foundation’s assertion point to the fact that in the original publication of the diary, Otto Frank wrote a prologue assuring readers that the book mostly contained Anne’s words. Placing the veracity of Anne Frank’s work into question could potentially diminish the message and meaning of the book. It raises the question that the foundation has for years misrepresented that Anne Frank was the only author.
The foundation clarifies that it is not attempting to extend copyright and that they are not in any way implying Otto Frank is the co-author of the actual diaries. Rather, after the war, Otto Frank merged and compiled Anne’s different diaries and notebooks into one reader-friendly version. By cutting, pasting and merging, he created a new book. For the purposes of copyright, says the foundation, he is the author of that version — and that book deserves its own copyright.
The foundation also argues that it seeks to protect Anne Frank’s work and image from inappropriate commercial exploitation. However, there’s a reason that copyrights are limited. People may be more likely to read Anne’s diary when it is in the public domain. Derivative works, such as adaptations in book and film, may increase noticeably. Just about every historical figure, from Shakespeare to Mozart, is now in the public domain.
During the years between the time the book was published and Otto Frank’s death, Otto Frank never claimed he was a co-author. Criticizers also question whether an organization can claim someone else had a copyright in a work decades after his death.
Additionally, there is another issue. A second editor, Mirjam Pressler, revised, edited and added 25 percent more material from Anne Frank’s diary for a new “definitive edition,” published in 1991. Pressler was given a copyright for that edition, which she transferred to the foundation. She is still living, which gives the foundation copyright ownership of that edition from the date of her future death for at least another 70 years.
As a final note, in the United States, the diary was first published in 1952, so U.S. copyright will last until 2047, regardless of what happens in Europe.
What do you think? Should Otto Frank be considered a co-author of The Diary of Anne Frank?