Thing 000802 (The Thief’s Journal)

In 1949, Jean Genet published the first version of the autobiographical novel Journal du Voleur in a printed edition of four hundred copies. Journal du Voleur is a partly fictional autobiography depicting Genet’s youth spent as a beggar, thief, and prostitute in prison as well in bars, dives and flop-houses throughout Europe. In this book, Genet regards thefts as a holy vocation, which he practices with a religious devotion. In 1949, Librairie Gallimard publsihed a slightly modified version of the text. Bernard Frechtman made an English translation of Journal du Voleur. In 1952, five pages of this translation were published in the United States in the anthology called New World Writing. On November 12, 1952, this excerpt was registered separately in the Copyright Office. In 1954, the well-known Olympia Press publised in France a revised version of Frechtman’s English translation, which included the five-page excerpt. No application for United States registration of copyright was made. Olympia failed to secure an ad interim copyright protection in the United States within the required six months after the translation was published in France. In 1964, acting under a license from Genet, Grove Press published an edition of The Thief’s Journal for the United States consisting of a substantially revised version of the Olympia Press edition. On January 26, 1965, a registration of the copyright in the United States was made.

In 1965, the Greenleaf Publishing Company, a paperback publisher from the United States, printed, distributed and sold The Thief’s Journal. The Thief’s Journal is the English translation of Jean Genet’s Journal du Voleur. Greenleaf’s edition was an exact copy of the 1954 English edition published in Paris by Olympia Press.

GrovePress, Genet and Frechtman sought damages against Greenleaf for copyright infringement of Frechtman’s translation and Genet’s underlying story. Greenleaf’s defense was that the text of the Olympia Press edition was in the public domain because Frechtman, a United States citizen, failed to secure an ad interim copyright. The court case Grove Press, Inc. v. The Greenleaf Publishing Co. took place at the District Court of N.Y. in 1965. The court held that:

It is obvious that Greenleaf copied not only the words of Frechtman, the translator, but also the content and meaning of those words as created in Jean Genet’s original biographical story. This creation included the entire plot, scenes, characters and dialogue of the novel, the format and pattern. Greenleaf copied two things the words and the story. [...] The essence of a novel or any other story for that matter, is the plot, plan, arrangement, characters and dialogue therein contained and not simply its form of articulation. [...] While this does not mean that the abstract idea of the novel or play alone is protected, it does mean that the particular pattern employed in arranging and expressing that idea is entitled to protection. [...] [L]ike any other derivative work, [...] [translation] is separate and apart from the underlying work [...] a dedication to the public of the derivative work did not, without more, emancipate the pattern of the underlying work from its copyright. [...] There is a differentiation between the underlying work and the derivative work. [...] The Frechtman translation was in the public domain, no other translation of the 1949 French work could be made without Genet’s permission. [... although] the copying of the original story was accomplished indirectly through copying of a translation of the original, [it] was nonetheless copying. Unauthorized copying may be effected either directly or indirectly; thus copying from a copy is no less an infringement than copying from the original copyrighted work.

The court concluded that the arrangement of the plot was original and part of the protected literary work by Jean Genet and decided that Greenleaf’s publication and sale within the United States of Frechtman’s English translation of Journal du Voleur in the Olympia edition, didn’t infringe on the English translation in the public domain but infringed on the arrangement of the plot in the French Journal du Voleur copyrighted with Gallimard in 1949.