New Year’s Day is synonymous with new beginnings, and 2016 will be no exception. Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), the manifesto in which Adolf Hitler explains his vision for Germany’s future and his political ideologies, will be falling into the public domain on January 1st, 2016. A French publishing house named Fayard, along with a few German editors, have made the controversial decision to publish a version of the Nazi leader’s book annotated with commentary by historians and various intellectuals. Copyright protected works become part of the public domain regularly, as terms of protection are limited. This particular book, however, has stirred controversy. In an open letter to Fayard, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, former French Minister of Vocational Education, stated his opposition to the publisher’s project. In the letter, Mélenchon argues that providing a public domain version is insufficient justification to publish the manifesto. But, in reality, I believe that reediting Mein Kampf is as important in this day and age to the public domain as ever.
The public domain has been described as the “storehouse of the raw materials of creative expression, freely available to all.” Integral to the copyright system, access to the public domain facilitates the spread of knowledge as well as innovation, artistic freedom and more. Furthermore, access to the public domain should ideally allow for dialogue and the debate of various ideas. Some scholars believe in “a public domain that reflects and protects the dialogic processes of culture on the face of increasingly restrictive intellectual property structures.” Others compare it to freedom of speech, claiming that “both the public domain and the principle of free speech construct, or aim at constructing, a communicative sphere, where people can interact with each other in various circles, whether it is an interpersonal circle, a communitarian one or a wider political circle.” No matter what concept you ascribe to, however, dissuading editors from publishing newly edited versions of Mein Kampf runs counter to the spirit of a robust public domain. What is important here is not the unrestricted availability of the manifesto as a symbol of humanism-contradicting ideologies, but rather the unrestricted access to a pedagogical tool that can spark dialogue through commentaries and annotations, and the contradictions or lies these notes can highlight.
Mein Kampf’s history after Hitler’s death also justifies a reedited version of the manifesto. Having inherited the rights over the book from the Nazi leader’s estate, the State of Bavaria was able to prohibit the copying and printing of new editions in all of Germany. Considering the historical and legal context, that decision was understandable, but ultimately incompatible with the copyright system. The public domain plays a crucial role in the balance of intellectual property, a system defined by monopolies and exclusive rights. By preventing further publications, the State of Bavaria used this very system as a tool for censorship, when the systems’ primary goal is actually to ensure the creation and accessibility of knowledge. If the public domain is indeed to act as a balancing sphere, then its respect calls for the existence of an annotated, explanatory version of Mein Kampf as opposed to yet another form of censorship.
The reediting of Mein Kampf is even more relevant in today’s context than it ever was. Once it falls into the public domain it will be available to anyone and everyone via the Internet. The digitalization of our society is an ally to the access of the public domain, but it also makes ideas even easier to propagate. The State of Bavaria’s attempts to limit the distribution of Mein Kampf in other countries have been mostly unsuccessful, as Hitler’s book has become quite popular in certain regions of the world, including the Middle East. Mélenchon was right to say that editing is broadcasting, and concerns coming from the propagation of Nazi ideology in an already fragile Europe are legitimate. The counteracting existence of a pedagogical, annotated version of the manifesto, however, will be more than necessary to fight the possible misuse of Mein Kampf and explain the pitfalls and horrible consequences that can arrive from such a point of view.
Allowing the publication of Mein Kampf may seem counter-intuitive, as no one can deny the dangers of the manifesto’s ideology. We cannot deny, however, that the book is part of our global history and heritage. The public domain plays an essential role in the preservation of that history by refusing to edit out historical lows so that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Its purpose is to let us grow as a society, through access to knowledge. By not making a distinction between immoral and moral works, the public domain has decided to stand by the belief that “suppressing dangerous ideas is much more dangerous than fighting them openly.”
Aicha Tohry is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Université de Montréal.