Who Gets The Royalties for Mein Kampf?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Mein Kampf is one of the most controversial books ever sold. Written in prison by Adolf Hitler following his failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the two-volume autobiography/rambling screed outlines his anti-Semitic worldview and the political reasoning that would eventually fuel the Third Reich. Mein Kampf is still printed and it is readily available in American libraries and bookstores, which raises the question: Who gets the royalties? Hitler has no heirs, and the moral dubiousness of profiting from his vile manifesto has prompted scrutiny since its initial publication.

In 1933, textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin released the first English language version of Mein Kampf in America under the title My Battle. A petition was circulated calling for the New York City Board of Education to stop using Houghton Mifflin titles, to which the publisher's board responded by defending itself in a statement, saying, "The greatest service one can render humanity in general and Germany in particular is to place My Battle within the reach of all, that each, for himself, may see whether the book is worthy or is an exhibition of ignorance, stupidity, and dullness." However, the Mein Kampf controversy that reached U.S. courts was not about subject matter, but rather copyright infringement.

When Hitler copyrighted Mein Kampf in 1925, he had already renounced his Austrian citizenship and had registered himself as a ”stateless German.” Stackpole, a Pennsylvania publisher, picked up on this, and released a competing version of Mein Kampf in America without securing the rights. When a federal judge permitted this on the grounds that Mein Kampf was public domain, a third publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, released their own version into the market as well. According to Cabinet Magazine, "Stackpole advertised that it paid no royalties to Hitler, to which Reynal & Hitchcock responded by promising all profits from the book to a refugee relief fund." Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin appealed the initial ruling, and on June 9, 1939, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor, giving them sole rights to publish Mein Kampf in America.

Hitler never saw any of the American royalties. By the time the legal dust had settled, World War II erupted and the U.S. enacted the Trading with the Enemy Act, which allowed the government to seize all profits from Mein Kampf. According to the New Statesmen, "During the Second World War, the U.S. government made more than $20,000 from royalties on Mein Kampf ... By 1979, the Justice Department had collected more than $139,000 in royalties." These profits were handed over to the War Claims Fund, and, "eventually, the monies were paid on a pro-rata basis to claimants, many of them American ex-POWs."

In 1979, Houghton Mifflin paid $37,254 to purchase Mein Kampf's publishing rights back from the U.S. government. Cabinet reports that "over the next two decades, with sales of approximately fifteen thousand copies per year, the best estimate is that Houghton Mifflin realized profits of somewhere between $300,000 and $700,000 on its 1979 investment of $37,254. With the publication in October 2000 of a U.S. News and World Report story detailing the history of its publication of Mein Kampf, however, Houghton Mifflin announced that it would donate all of its accrued Mein Kampf profits to charity."

A Houghton Mifflin representative tells us that they "donate all royalties and profits from the book to organizations that promote diversity and cross-cultural understanding. These have included The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves."

Under German copyright law, a book automatically goes into the public domain at the start of the new year 70 years after the author's death. On January 1, 2016, Mein Kampf's copyright will be lifted. In Germany, the book's rights are owned by the state of Bavaria and they have forbidden its publication there. German ministers are currently prepping for the copyright's expiration, and are considering a new law to prevent its publication or, should that prove futile, a guarantee "that there is a scholarly edition which provides a scientific and critical analysis in order to demystify this horrible text."