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Copyright in Goebbels’s Diaries

Chris JHolland24 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 If the diaries are truly an “unpublished work” then it looks as though they would indeed be in copyright for an additional 23 years in the UK.

Free our History Campaign #Catch 2039

Chris JHolland3 November 2014

Did you know that a broad swathe of historically important unpublished works is in copyright until 2039? A campaign has been launched by CILIP, the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance (LACA) and others to persuade the UK Government to press ahead with a small but significant change to the copyright term for unpublished works.

Once the copyright term for these work is reduced to the standard (and more reasonable) author’s lifetime plus 70 years, then museums, libraries and archives will have greater freedom to display and reproduce the unpublished works they hold. The more historical items will come out of copyright immediately. (See the previous blog post of 21 August 2014 for more background).

UCL Library supports the Free our History Campaign and would encourage colleagues in the cultural and educational sector to add their voices. There is a petition to sign on the CILIP web pages Libraries and museums can also participate by  displaying a “blank page” in place of a significant unpublished work they would like to exhibit but are prevented from doing so by the current copyright term for these works.

Unpublished Works and 2039

Chris JHolland21 August 2014

 Unpublished works pose particular problems, especially for archives. A quirk of copyright law means that many of these works, including some very old documents are in copyright until 2039.

Before the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 came into force on 1st August 1989 the situation was even more restrictive. Some unpublished works enjoyed perpetual copyright. The CDPA redefined the duration of copyright for those works to 50 years after the new Act came into force, in other words the end of 2039.

Among the works affected are previously unpublished works of known authorship created before 1st August 1989, (except pre June 1957 photographs), in all cases where the author died before 1969. The letters of a prominent scientist, written prior to 1989 and never published would be in copyright until 2039.

It follows that if we wish to reproduce any of those letters, we need permission from the copyright holder, who could for example be a descendant of the author. This situation affects the use of extensive material held by the National Archives and similarly restrictive rules apply to some unpublished material which is Crown Copyright.

Could there be change on the horizon? The Government has given itself powers via the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to amend this particular quirk of copyright duration. The result will be that some unpublished copyright works will move into the public domain while others will have a shorter term. We await the Statutory Instruments needed to implement the changes.