Monday, May 11, 2015

LAW | Not Copyright's Finest Hour, 1939

We think of the copyright law as a blessed compromise between the need of the public for access to literature and the need of writers for revenue.

But David Post, via the Volokh Conspiracy on the Washington Post blogsite, today reminded us that the copyright law has been used to suppress speech.

In 1938, Alan Cranston (1914-2000) - then a correspondent for the INS just two years out of Stanford, later to serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate - violated the copyright of a world-famous person in the public interest.

The person whose rights were violated - according to a U.S. court decision - was Adolf Hitler and the book was an English translation of
Mein Kampf. 

Cranston said his public purpose was  to “wake up the Americans to the Nazi threat.” Here is Cranston's story from an interview dated 2000, the year of his death:
I read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the book he wrote while he was in prison before he became the dictator, outlining his plans for Germany and the terrible things he intended to do in the world. There was no English language version of it. [O]ne day in Macy’s bookstore in New York I saw a display of Mein Kampf, an English language version, which I’d never seen before, which hadn’t existed. I went over to look at it out of curiosity and as I picked it up, I knew it wasn’t the real book. It was much thinner than the long book that I had read, which is about 350,000 words. So I bought it to see how come. And delving into it I found that it was a condensed version, and some of the things that would most upset Americans just weren’t there as they were in the version I had read, the original, in German.
So I talked to an editor friend of mine in New York, a Hearst editor named Amster Spiro, and suggested that I write and we publish an anti-Nazi version of Mein Kampf that would be the real book and would awaken Americans to the peril Hitler posed for us and the rest of the world. So we did that. I spent eight days [compiling] my version of Mein Kampf from the English language version that I now had, the original German language version, and another copy that had just appeared.
[Hitler’s] book was then selling for around three dollars a copy. Hitler was getting forty cents royalty for each copy that somebody bought … We proceeded to print in tabloid the version that I wrote, with a very lurid red cover showing Hitler carving up the world, and we sold it for ten cents on newsstands. It created quite a stir. Some Nazis went around knocking down newsstands that displayed it in St. Louis and the German part of New York and elsewhere in the country. We sold half a million copies in ten days and were immediately sued by Hitler’s agents on the grounds we had violated his copyright …
David Post adds that Hitler won his copyright case in the U.S. District Court, Second Circuit. His German publisher, Eher-Verlag of Munich, and the US publisher to which it had assigned the US copyright, Houghton Mifflin, persuaded the court to enjoin further publication of Cranston’s version in the United States and to order destruction of existing copies. Houghton Mifflin v. Stackpole, 104 F.2d 306 (2d Cir., June 9, 1939).

Hitler got to continue to receive royalties, and to control publication of his book, 10 weeks before he marched into Poland.