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Copyright in Goebbels’s Diaries

ucylcjh24 April 2015

A biography of Joseph Goebbels by Peter Longerich, a prominent historian at Royal Holloway College specialising in modern German history, has stirred up a dispute about the copyright in Goebbels’s diaries, which has been widely reported on internet news sites. The original, German version of the biography was published in 2010 and the English language edition is due next month. As you might expect in a biography, Longerich quotes extensively from the diaries kept by Goebbels.

The basic copyright term in Germany is the author’s lifetime plus 70 years (as in the UK), so Goebbels’s works are in copyright until 2016. Nevertheless the publishers were surprised to be pursed for infringement of copyright in the diaries by lawyers on behalf of Goebbels’s estate. It is common knowledge that Goebbels’s immediate family died in Hitler’s bunker, so presumably the estate has been inherited by more distant relatives.

This raises an obvious moral question about family members making money from the diaries of this particular individual but it also illustrates the lengthy duration of copyright under EU legislation. In terms of UK copyright law, the diaries may be caught by the 2039 rule (which is nearly as difficult to understand as the offside rule!). If the diaries are truly an “unpublished work” then it looks as though they would indeed be in copyright for an additional 23 years in the UK.