To lovers of Irish literature, June 16 is better known as Bloomsday. The annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place on the summer day when Leopold Bloom took his fictional stroll through the streets, homes, businesses, and brothels of Dublin more than a century ago. Dedicated readers often travel to Dublin in an attempt to retrace Bloom’s steps (not completely possible any longer) and drink copious amounts of beer. They also like to listen to passages read aloud from the book. All good fun, right? In the last few years, though, the day has taken on an increasingly sober cast as Joyce’s sole literary executor has wielded the power of copyright to shut down much public discussion of his grandfather’s life and work, and even to silence public readings.
The New Yorker has a fascinating piece on the copyright controversy that has thrown Joyce studies, in particular, into turmoil. Stephen James Joyce has proved himself extraordinarily unwilling to allow scholars access to Joyce’s private letters and writings, and has even objected to their use of passages from his grandfather’s works. Using copyright as a basis for his claims, Stephen and his lawyers have threatened and sued academics in both Europe and North America, and Joyce himself has gone so far as to destroy some private family correspondence to keep it out of the hands of critics. He doesn’t draw the line at academics, either; anyone who wants to use Joyce’s material is fair game for Stephen’s wrath.
In 2004, the centenary of Bloomsday, Stephen threatened the Irish government with a lawsuit if it staged any Bloomsday readings; the readings were cancelled. He warned the National Library of Ireland that a planned display of his grandfather?s manuscripts violated his copyright. (The Irish Senate passed an emergency amendment to thwart him.) His antagonism led the Abbey Theatre to cancel a production of Joyce?s play “Exiles,” and he told Adam Harvey, a performance artist who had simply memorized a portion of “Finnegans Wake” in expectation of reciting it onstage, that he had likely “already infringed” on the estate?s copyright. Harvey later discovered that, under British law, Joyce did not have the right to stop his performance.
The entire episode is especially intriguing because so much of it revolves around the limits of copyright. Joyce’s works entered the public domain in the US in 1991, 50 years after his death, which meant that Stephen had no more control over most of that material. In 1998, however, Congress added another 20 years to copyrights through a law that some dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (Disney lobbied heavily for the bill). The bill’s passage meant that Joyce’s work returned to copyrighted status (in the US, at least) through 2011, and Stephen exercised his rights over the material more vigorously than ever.
Would you extend this man’s copyright?
Lawrence Lessig recently got involved in the case after hearing from an academic who was threatened with legal action over a book on Joyce’s daughter. Lessig has crusaded for years against what he views as excessive copyright terms (and he memorably lost the Eldred v. Ashcroft case on this issue when it came before the Supreme Court). He will file suit against Stephen Joyce this week, asking a judge to declare that his client (Carol Shloss, a Stanford English prof) has the right to use material under the “fair use” exemption to copyright. Not everyone is excited about this approach, though, as the article makes clear.
F. Scott Kieff, an intellectual-property specialist at Washington University, in St. Louis, said, “It would be really bad if Shloss won. If all I need to do to get access to your property is to say that the restrictions that you are using are unfair?and by unfair I only mean unpopular?then anyone who is unpopular loses their property rights.”
The case raises all sorts of intriguing questions. What if you become famous enough that biographers seek out your unpublished letters and your darkest personal secrets after your death? Should your relatives have the right to control access to that information? If so, for how long? While the current copyright extension means that Joyce’s work will now enter the public domain in 2012, there’s no guarantee that this will in fact be the case. Congress will no doubt come under strong pressure from companies like Disney to extend the copyright term once again (for thoughts about why this might be a bad idea for everyone except Disney, see Lessig’s book Free Culture [PDF], which looks at this very issue).