The Wikimedia Foundation has announced that it was required to remove a copy of the Dutch-language edition of The Diary of Anne Frank that was hosted on WMF servers due to American copyright law. Although Dutch copyright law on a work expires 70 years after the author’s death, meaning the work is (probably) in the public domain in the Netherlands, by American law the Diary is under copyright for 95 years after it was originally written. The Wikimedia Foundation explained that it was required to remove the media because the location of its servers, incorporation, and headquarters in the USA subject it to US jurisdiction.

As we previously reported, even the copyright status in the Netherlands is under dispute, with one of the foundations that bears Anne Frank’s name insisting that her father should have co-author status and hence extend its public domain entry for a few more decades. The French Librarians’ Association has spoken out against this rights-grab.

That being said, the differing public domain dates of different countries isn’t exactly new. It’s been an issue for years, and it seems doubtful that whoever uploaded the file to Wikimedia was unaware of the matter. For example, you could very easily find a copy of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the last Holmes collection which is still under copyright in the US, simply by googling up a public-domain e-books site in the UK or Australia. Ditto for the later Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and many other titles you’d care to name. Those sites don’t usually try to prevent people from the wrong countries from downloading books; they just warn such people that doing so would be naughty.

I have little doubt that Gutenberg, Wikimedia, and other public-domain repositories have to remove dozens or hundreds of mistakenly-uploaded titles per year—other titles that, like Case-Book, are in public domain in one jurisdiction but not in another. And they don’t make a special announcement every time that happens. They’re just making a big to-do out of this one because it’s in the news, and it’s a good time to use the publicity to call additional attention to the way that US copyright terms are really ridiculously long.

I can certainly get behind calling attention to that, but it remains unclear exactly what anyone can do about it. WMF lays out the reasons pretty clearly that they had to remove the title, and they in part rely on international treaty obligations. Meanwhile, one big new international treaty that may have some untoward implications for copyright reform is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Among other things, it will extend copyright to life plus 70 years for all its members. The TPP was recently signed by all 12 member countries with no public debate whatsoever, though it will only take effect if the US actually passes it—which seems unlikely given that many elected officials feel it doesn’t go far enough in protecting corporate interests.

TorrentFreak notes that the Internet Archive is still hosting a copy of the Dutch edition of the Diary—which doesn’t seem too surprising, as in some ways the Internet Archive doesn’t seem to care too much about scrupulously honoring US copyright law.

3 COMMENTS

  1. All the commentary I have read here in Canada suggests that signing the TPP is not the hard part, rather, ratifying it is. If they don’t get it ratified—which requires congressional approval—it will all be done. If we keep up the noise on this, there is still a chance to scuttle it.

  2. Check out this webpage at Cornell and you’ll discover that, due to the many complexities of U.S. copyright law before we signed on the the Berne Convention, quite a few 1923 and later books are in the public domain in the U.S.

    http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

    For instance:

    * 1923 through 1977. Published without a copyright notice. None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities. (Don’t laugh. That almost got the U.S. copyright on Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings annulled. The fact that it had a foreign author helped to spare it. I used to know the lawyer who got that copyright officially restored.)

    *1923 through 1963. Published with notice but copyright was not renewed. None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration. (Apparently, the first term was for 28 years, with renewal extending it for another 47 years. For what the copyright office says, see: http://copyright.gov/circs/circ15.pdf )

    —–

    Sorry, but I fail to see much reason for this squabble over The Diary of Anne Frank. Some people are too obsessed with getting for free books that are well worth paying for. They should not be so cheap. Inexpensive copies of The Diary are widely available at used bookstores and elsewhere. Amazon has used copies starting at $0.49 plus shipping. Almost any used bookstore will have copies for $1 or less with no shipping costs. If your budget is tight, buy that way. That’s what I do.

    Attention would be better directed at the second in those two bulleted items above, books that got so little attention when first published, that neither the author nor the publisher bothered to renew the copyright. They are in the public domain and releasing new versions of them makes sense. Finding a used copy of one is likely to be hard and may be expensive.

    Finding such books and releasing a public domain version of them makes sense. Tastes change. Some authors, never noticed in their own time, might even prove popular today. Creating a public domain version of them would be doing their legacy a favor. They may not get money, but at least they could get fame.

    –Mike Perry

    • Sure, attention would be better spent on that. But whenever a news story makes a big splash, people try to figure out how they can get some of that splash on them.

      (Just look at me, immediately writing an article about Justice Scalia and copyright the day after he died. 🙂 )

      And the Anne Frank thing is in the news right now, so it means some free publicity for them.