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The End of Copyright: Discovering Who Joyce Really Is
Robert Spoo

James Joyce’s Ulysses famously ends with a resonant “yes,” the climax of Molly Bloom’s nocturnal soliloquy.  Years ago, scholars noticed that the title “Ulysses” itself contains the word yes, subtly scrambled; and at least one anagrammatically-minded critic pointed out that the novel’s first word, “Stately,” also harbors an inverted yes.  Joyce’s bleak comic novel of sexual betrayal and disappointed human bridges could thus be said to be shot through with encoded, if not cosmic, affirmation. 

Not so the Estate of James Joyce.  Although “yes” can also be squeezed from the phrase “Joyce Estate,” the Estate itself in recent decades has been more associated with everlasting nays than with affirmations.  The Estate’s power to say no has derived simply and solely from its control of the copyrights in Joyce’s works.  Without this power, it would be little more than a disapproving bystander.  For many scholars and others seeking permission to use or quote from Joyce’s writings, “no” has come to seem the mantra of the keepers of the Joyce copyrights.

It has not always been so.  Important early explications of Ulysses, such as Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1930) and Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses” (1934), quoted amply from the then scandalous novel—with Joyce’s blessing.  These and other critical studies legitimized Joyce’s masterpiece every bit as much as did the judicial lifting of the obscenity ban in the United States and the gradual acceptance of the novel in other countries.  After Joyce’s death in 1941, his literary executor and the Society of Authors, acting for the Estate, welcomed the work of scholars.  With their approval, Richard Ellmann’s groundbreaking biography of Joyce appeared (1959), as did important posthumous writings by Joyce: three volumes of letters (1957, 1966); a long fragment of the early autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero (1944); the critical writings (1959); and the erotic prose sketches contained in Giacomo Joyce (1968).

But the mood changed in the 1980s after Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, pledged to assert himself more vigorously in Estate matters.  He announced to a startled audience at a Venice symposium that he had destroyed letters and postcards written by Samuel Beckett and Joyce’s daughter, Lucia.  A few years later, he made it clear that any “scheme” to publish the still unpublished letters of Joyce (more than 1,700) would require the “explicit consent” of the Estate.

The family letters aroused in Mr. Joyce a passionate chivalry.  He has never forgiven Richard Ellmann for publishing, in 1975, a handful of exuberantly erotic letters written by Joyce to his partner, Nora Barnacle, in 1909.  These documents have allowed scholars to glimpse the process by which Joyce created the complex sexual imaginations of his fictional characters.  But for Stephen Joyce, Ellmann had unleashed an unseemly voyeurism, an invitation to gaze on his Edwardian grandparents disporting themselves in forbidden ecstasy.

By the mid-1990s, copyright in the Estate’s hands had come to seem more a sword than a shield.  The Estate appeared to deny permissions almost upon principle.  In 2000, the Irish Times reported that the Estate had flatly denied the request of a 23-year-old Irish composer, David Fennessy, to use eighteen words from Finnegans Wake in a short choral piece commissioned by Lyric FM for a Europe-wide broadcast.  Fennessy was crushed: “Now the whole thing is gone: it’s not so much losing the commission fee, which I sorely needed, or the European broadcast.  My piece can’t ever exist because it can’t be performed.”  Similar refusals followed.

The Estate took aim at scholarly projects as well.  As a lawyer and former editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, I have been contacted by literally dozens of bemused academics over the years who have received outright refusals from the Estate or been drawn into lengthy negotiations that sometimes ended in requests for prohibitive permission fees.  (It is only fair to add that there are cases in which the Estate granted permissions promptly and reasonably.)  On several occasions, the Estate resorted to litigation.  In October 2000, the Irish High Court granted the Estate an injunction preventing Cork University Press from publishing extracts of Danis Rose’s Reader’s Edition of Ulysses in an anthology of twentieth-century Irish writing.  A year later, in a separate lawsuit filed in Britain, the English High Court ruled that Rose’s edition had infringed the copyrights in certain manuscript materials published after Joyce’s death, although the Court rejected a number of the Estate’s claims.

One of the most publicized legal clashes resulted when in 2006 a Stanford University English professor, Carol Shloss, sued the Estate in a California federal court, alleging that the Estate had misused its copyrights in attempting to prevent her from quoting from Joyce family documents in her biography of Joyce’s troubled daughter, Lucia.  (I was one of the lawyers who represented Shloss.)  Shloss argued that the Estate had consistently leveraged its monopoly power to silence and intimidate scholars, to deny reasonable and lawful uses of Joyce’s writings, and to enforce family privacy by illegitimate means.  After more than a year of litigation, the Estate effectively ended the case by conceding that Shloss could quote from Joyce documents in all the ways she had sought to, and a settlement was reached.  The court ordered the Estate to pay Shloss’s attorneys’ fees.
Dedicated scholars built much of the foundation of Joyce’s present fame.  What happened in the course of time to turn the Estate from a promoter of Joyce studies to a wrathful watchdog?  I think it was a kind of ingratitude.  Once Joyce was firmly installed in literary stardom, scholars and critics seemed dispensable.  Joyce, at one time a needy developing nation, had achieved First World status, and scholarly aid could now be scorned as prying and pointless. 

But the core problem was that copyrights had grown too long.  Copyrights in works published by Joyce during his lifetime expired in much of the EU at the end of 1991, but an EU directive, implemented in 1995, restored them all for another fifteen years or so.  Extremely long copyrights have given artificial voice and weight to the personal predilections of heirs who, in the absence of such rights, would be ordinary participants in the development of art and letters like most of the rest of us.  These protracted monopolies have allowed mere rights-holders, temporally and perhaps temperamentally remote from the authors whose works they control, to become privileged and arbitrary custodians of culture.

This is why the expiration of the Joyce copyrights is a cause for celebration.  In Ireland and many other EU countries, editions of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and other works published during Joyce’s lifetime entered the public domain on January 1, 2012.  The sense of relief and liberation is palpable.  In Ireland alone, numerous unauthorized events have been announced: a performance of Joyce’s drama, Exiles; a new play based on the lives of Leopold and Molly Bloom; broadcasts of interpretive readings of Joyce’s works, and flash mobs breaking out into performances of Ulysses, to name a few.

This is cultural energy taking its normal, ebullient course, unchecked by the menace of copyright.  Will an unprotected Joyce be the victim of artistic vandalism?  Of course he will, but that is no cause for alarm.  Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen have all been subjected to interpretive indignities and crass modernizations.  The strong, like Joyce, survive and thrive.  It is all part of the cultural sorting process.  Copyrights, for all their benefits, can freeze works in artificial perfection, a false youthfulness like that of Dorian Gray.  The end of the Joyce copyrights will help us to understand who Joyce really is, and who we are as well.


Robert Spoo is Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Tulsa College of Law

Robert Spoo - The End of Copyright: Discovering Who Joyce Really Is