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The Outer Limits. . . .of Copyright. Part 1


Bloomsday (June 16th) has passed, but I would assume that among James Joyce scholars and devotees the celebrating continues. Bloomsday is the annual celebration of the day-in-the life of Leopold Bloom immortalized in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Lovers of James Joyce are still celebrating because Ulysses and the other work published during Joyce’s life have been free from copyright protection since January 1, 2012. Still celebrating six months later? After what they had to deal with regarding the estate of James Joyce they may be celebrating this liberation for many years to come. Allow me to explain.

James Joyce died in 1941. Joyce’s estate, which controlled the copyrights to his published works traded hands until it ended up in the control of his grandson Stephen James Joyce (he like using his full name).  Works protected by copyright cannot be reprinted unless permission is granted by the copyright holder, and permissions are often granted, for a fee. When the persons requesting use are academics the fee involved is often nominal. Not with Stephen James Joyce at the helm of the Joyce estate. Stephen made the academic’s job of writing about James Joyce hell. Gordon Bowker referred to it as “Literature’s most tyrannical estate” in a piece appearing on the Daily Beast web site. In an attempt to prevent publication and protect the personal life of his grandfather, Stephen has sued, or threatened to sue numerous scholars, performers (including singer Kate Bush), and even the National Library of Ireland. The scholarly books that did not get published would fill library shelves. Publishers, writers, and all sorts of artists were scared off by lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits. The Joyce Studies Annual ceased publication due to Stephen James Joyce. Professor Robert Spoo of the University of Tulsa Law School quit editing the James Joyce Quarterly and went to law school to become, yes, a copyright lawyer. 

With the published works of James Joyce moving into the public domain Stephen James Joyce no longer wields the power he once had. However, there are still questions that swirl around James Joyce’s unpublished works and manuscripts. Stephen James Joyce’s vigorous and aggressive defense of his grandfather’s works is understandable; Lawrence Lessig has said that “Stephen Joyce is using whatever power he has.” (It is worth noting that Lessig and Joyce tangled in litigation. See Schloss v. Sweeney, 515 F. Supp. 2d 1083 (N.D. Cal. 2007)). 

The effects of our copyright system often manifest themselves in the most unlikely places. The matter of James Joyce’s literary estate is a good example of this. 

We now return you to your normally scheduled programming.

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