The long arm of copyright: Millions blocked from reading original versions of The Diary of Anne Frank

Timothy Vollmer

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The original writings of The Diary of Anne Frank should have entered the public domain on January 1, 2016. They should have become freely accessible to everyone who wants to read and experience this important cultural work. Instead, the texts remain clogged in the pipes of EU copyright law. In some countries like Poland, the texts are in the public domain. In others, such as the Netherlands, the original writings are protected under copyright until 2037. As a result, millions of people are unable to access and read the online versions of the original works. (The situation is even worse in the U.S., where those writings will remain under copyright until 2042.)

Centrum Cyfrowe, Kennisland, and COMMUNIA are highlighting the strange legal situation around The Diary of Anne Frank with the campaign #ReadAnneDiary.

Today, the Polish digital education organization Centrum Cyfrowe published the original, Dutch-language version of The Diary of Anne Frank online at annefrank.centrumcyfrowe.pl. This is the first time internet users will able to read the original writings of Anne Frank online. But unless you’re in Poland, you won’t be able to access it. Why? Because as of today, the primary texts are still protected by copyright in most member states of the European Union.

COMMUNIA explains the copyright confusion surrounding the diary:

First, the Anne Frank Foundation announced their plans to list Otto (Anne Frank’s father) as a co-author, which would extend the protection period of the published diary until 2050. Next, due to a transitional rule in Dutch law it became clear that Anne Frank’s original writings would not enter the public domain in 2016 in the Netherlands (and many other EU countries with similar rules). Finally, in early February the Wikimedia Foundation (the organization that hosts Wikipedia and related projects) decided to remove the Dutch-language text of the diary from Wikisource.

It’s a mess. But it doesn’t have to be this way. COMMUNIA underscores the need for a modern, progressive copyright framework in Europe:

Currently, the rules for establishing the duration of the term of protection are so complex that we need the support of legal experts from different European countries just to determine whether an individual work is still protected by copyright or neighboring rights. In particular, the lack of effective harmonisation of the duration of copyright across the EU hampers efforts of organisations and entrepreneurs, who want to offer online products and services. Only an intervention at the European level can be remedy this situation. As we have repeatedly argued, the term of copyright protection should be reduced and fully harmonized and unified throughout the EU. If we want to fully unlock the potential of our rich cultural heritage we need clear rules that allow anyone to determine whether a work is still protected by copyright. This also includes making it clear that digitization of public domain works does not create new rights.

The #ReadAnneDiary campaign corresponds with this year’s World Intellectual Property Day. Copyright and other intellectual property rights can be used to promote creativity, sharing, and innovation. Creative Commons licensing allows authors to publish their creative works on more flexible terms than the default all rights reserved regime. Creators of all types are leveraging open copyright licensing and the public domain to collaborate and share a wealth of content—including digital educational resources, scientific research findings, and rich cultural and artistic works.

At the same time, it’s crucial that the public has the right to access important historical works like original versions of The Diary of Anne Frank. It should be available online—in the public domain—for anyone to access, read, and appreciate.