Let’s be frank

The Diary of Anne Frank has moved millions of people, young and old, all over the world since it was first published in 1947. So it’s perhaps of no surprise that the diary’s copyright status – which some argue ends this year – is a hot topic, and one that hasn’t yet been settled by any court.

In case you haven’t been reminded about Anne Frank since your school days, a quick recap:

From 1942 until her arrest in 1944, Anne was in hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex behind a movable bookcase in an Amsterdam building. She recorded her dreams, irritations, hardship and passions in a little red checked book given to her for her 13th birthday by her father, Otto Frank. The manuscript writings were found strewn on the floor after the family’s arrest, but before the rooms were ransacked by the Dutch police. They were kept safe and given to Otto after the war when Anne’s death aged 15 was confirmed in the autumn of 1945.

Otto made a transcript of Anne’s diary for his friends and family in Switzerland and they convinced him to send it for publication. Over the following years, Anne Frank swiftly became one of the Holocaust’s most recognisable victims, with her story being translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Greek. The book was a best-seller. A stage play followed, then an Oscar winning movie; little wonder that people are now arguing about the copyright to such a successful (and money spinning) piece of writing.

So what’s the copyright?

Copyright arises automatically upon creation of a work, and, across most of Europe, generally lasts for 70 years from the date of the author’s death. So, that seems pretty straightforward – Anne Frank wrote her diary, she died in 1945 so the copyright ends at the end of 2015 and anyone is free to publish the diary from the start of 2016. Right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. (It’s never straightforward, is it?)

The Anne Frank Fonds (a Swiss foundation that owns the copyright to the diaries) is arguing that both Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler (the editor of a later edition) are “legal co-authors” because they “in effect created readable books from Anne Frank’s original writings”. So by their calculations, the copyright isn’t linked to Anne’s death and anyone wanting to publish the diary needs their permission.

Now that slightly puts a spanner in the works for the many publishers wanting a piece of the action, because Otto only died in 1980, meaning that copyright in his name would continue until 2050. And as far as we know, Mirjam Pressler is still going strong.

This co-authorship idea has been strongly contested but, as yet, hasn’t been put to the test in court. Many publishers have been frantically preparing new versions of the diary to release in January 2016, and we understand that they’re planning to plough on regardless of the warnings from the Anne Frank Fonds Foundation.

When is a diary not a diary?

The publishers’ point is this: how can a diary be written by anyone other than the person whose diary it is? Not a bad argument if you ask us, and one that would certainly seem to point towards the diary being in the public domain from next year. Yes, Anne’s father may be the curator of the commercial edition of the diary published in 1947, but does this give him copyright in the work?

With so many publishers across Europe planning to release “unauthorised” versions of the diary in the new year, it’s unlikely this is the last we’ll hear of the issue. It’ll be interesting to watch the sparks fly and, as ever, we’ll keep you up to date with the next chapter.

In the meantime, if you wanted to know more about what copyright is and when it arises, you know where to look…

More on copyright

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