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Alan Cranston, Proud Copyright Infringer

by John Aquino on 04/12/12

          It’s an interesting idea to sing the praises of a copyright infringer, who openly infringed a copyright to fight what he rightly regarded as evil, and who, in the process, may have may have demonstrated the strength of the U.S. copyright law.

Alan Cranston, who died Jan. 1, 2000 at the age of 86 and who served in the U.S. Senate from 1968 to 1992 (D-Calif.), earned a footnote in intellectual property law history for having violated Adolph Hitler’s copyright. Cranston later included in his resume that he had been successfully sued by Hitler, and this assertion was picked up in many of his obituaries. In his political campaigns, Cranston acquired a great deal of Jewish-American support from this claim that he was a proud violator of Hitler’s copyright in the name of truth. The actual facts are a little more complicated, but the gist of it is true.

Returning to America from Europe, where he had witnessed the growth of Nazi Germany, Cranston saw copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale in Macy’s in New York City and, having read the original German version, realized that this English translation was heavily edited, leaving out sections that showed Hitler’s plan for world domination. He and his friend Amster Spiro, an editor for Hearst, formed Noram Publishing Co., and Cranston dictated an abridged version of Mein Kampf, which included many of the section omitted from the English translation, in about eight days. “We have slashed Hitler’s 270,000 words to 70,000,” Cranston and Spiro declared in their forward, “but nothing important is omitted!” The 32-page tabloid edition, copyrighted in 1939, was a “Reader’s Digest-like version [showing] the worst of Hitler,” Cranston said later. The book, published in a tabloid format, contained illustrations and notes showing Hitler’s “propaganda and distortions.” The book sold 500,000 copies in 10 days.

Cranston and Spiro also pledged in their introduction that “Not 1 cent of royalty [will go] to Hitler,” and, instead, that all profits would be used to help refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Hitler’s authorized American publisher was selling its edition at $3 a copy, compared to Noram’s 10 cent edition.

Cranston claimed later that, “The people representing Hitler--in effect, because they had his copyright--sued us, because we were obviously undercutting their market” and that Houghton Mifflin also sued another American publisher of Mein Kampf, Stackpole Sons.

In fact, Houghton Mifflin—and not Hitler or his representatives—sued both Noram and Stackpole—Houghton Mifflin v. Noram Publishing Inc., 28 F. Supp. 676 (S.D.N.Y., 1939) and Houghton Mifflin v. Stackpole and Sons, 104 F. 2d 206 (preliminary injunction issued, 2d Cir., 1939), cert. denied 308 U.S. 597 (1939), 113 F.2d 627 (2d Cir., 1940)--although it is possible Hitler’s German publishers may have threatened legal actions as well.

Both Stackpole and Noram claimed in court that Hitler was “stateless” when he wrote Mein Kampf, and, under U.S. copyright law, it was in the public domain and Hitler had no rights to the book.

But the courts rejected this argument. In July 1939, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York took the unusual step of granting Houghton Mifflin an injunction against Noram, forcing the company to destroy the remaining copies—about 500,000, according to Cranston. The judge wrote, “It appears to me that the defendant, Noram Publishing Company, knowing or at least suspecting the claimed copyright of the plaintiff to the book “Mein Kampf,” attempted to take advantage of the public interest in Hitler, and devised this form of pamphlet or edition, to profit by the desire of the public to read about Hitler.”

 The same district court denied Houghton Mifflin’s preliminary injunction motion against Stackpole, but it was granted in June 1939 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; the Second Circuit awarded Houghton Mifflin summary judgment against Stackpole for copyright infringement in July 1940

And so, Cranston’s boast that he had been sued by Hitler was not exactly true, but his implicit claim that he risked suit to get the truth out has more merit.

The moral is the history proves that, just as American Nazis, even though what they proclaimed and stood for was heinous, received First Amendment protection when they marched in Stokie, even Hitler’s works, vile though their contents were, received protection under U.S. copyright laws.

But Cranston infringed the copyright and was proud.

I wonder if there is a novel or a play or a movie idea in this--from the perspective of a Cranston-like character, or from the perspective of a Houghton Mifflin type publisher, or both.

Copyright  2012 by John T. Aquino

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