The Battle For Anne Frank: Who's the Rightful Owner of Her Copyright?

The Holocaust knows countless hells but only one shrine.


The shrine is located in the center of Amsterdam, and each year more than a million visitors clamber up the narrow stairs of the building where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis and she kept her diary. After 25 months the hideout was betrayed and its occupants bundled off to annihilation camps. Only the father of the diarist, Otto Frank, survived.

Anne’s Legacy, a one-hour documentary recently broadcast on Dutch TV, traced the evolution of Anne Frank from unknown teenager to world-renown icon. In addition, the documentary unpacked the feud between the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, in Holland, and the Anne Frank Fund in Basel, Switzerland.

The Amsterdam Foundation operates the Anne Frank House and handles educational programming. The Fund in Basel, a non-profit founded by Otto Frank in 1963, owns the copyright to the dairy. The diary itself, however, is the property of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam. Absent King Solomon to decide the issue, Otto, who died in 1980, elected to split Anne’s progeny down the middle: copyright to Basel, diary to Holland. Stored in an air-controlled safe, no one can take as much as a peek without the express written consent of the Fund.

Ownership of the diary is not the same as the copyright, explained David Barnouw, a former employee of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation and world’s leading authority on Anne Frank. The Foundation is allowed to publicize Anne’s diary but not to make the content public.

But all that may well change with the expiration of the copyright, which is slated to occur on January 1, 2016, seventy years after Anne’s death in 1945, in accordance with Dutch copyright law.

Anne’s diary has been translated into dozens of languages and generates millions of dollars in book sales annually. The prospect of losing the copyright to the diary of the “world’s most famous victim of the Holocaust” has the Basel Fund up in arms. Studiously avoiding all mention of money, it contends that the integrity of diary would suffer if just anyone could use it without strict oversight, as happened decades ago when Holocaust deniers threw doubt on its authenticity. “The copyright needs protection,” Yves Kugelmann, the director of the Swiss Fund, explained to a reporter for a Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, “because we don’t want a slew of inferior products on the market. It’s a fragile text.”

The extension sought by the Fund involves a hefty infusion of legal legerdemain. By promoting Otto from editor of his daughter’s diary to co-author, the Fund expects to extend the copyright until January 1, 2051 – and even years beyond 2051, if it decides to stake its claim on the “definitive edition” prepared by the German author Mirjam Pressler in 1991.

A further point of friction between Amsterdam and Basel is the latter’s support for a projected museum in Frankfurt devoted to the Frank family and its intention to stock it with the Frank Family Archive, an extensive collection of photographs, letters and documents, currently on loan to the Foundation. Mr. Kugelmann justifies the creation of a museum in the Franks’ ancestral home on the ground that the family history in Germany goes back 400 years while the family’s “exile” lasted but 12, in essence reducing the slaughter of the Frank family to a footnote. Never mind that Anne had lived in the Netherlands since the age of four and thoroughly identified as Dutch. Basel’s re-appropriation of the archive signified the end to a longstanding collaboration between the heirs of Anne’s legacy.

Asked what he expected to happen on January 1, 2016, Kugelmann answered:  “Nothing.” Upon expiration of the copyright, should it come to that, Anne’s diary would enter the public domain, to be used in whichever way people saw fit.

The Foundation is on board with that. And perhaps Anne, who so desperately wanted to become a writer, would have been as well.

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