Copyright, Joyce and UlyssesPosted: July 23, 2012
James Joyce died in 1941, and since 1 January, it seems, copyright in his published works has expired under the 70-year rule. This 70-year rule was a result of EU law, and there was a period from 1992 when the UK (and US) 50-year rule applied. Copyright protection has prevented adaptations of Joyce’s work, the quotation of large excerpts, and the use of unpublished material without the permission of the copyright holder. Since the mid-1980s that holder has been Stephen James Joyce, James’ grandson, born in 1932, who now lives in France.
Stephen Joyce exercised strict control over his grandfather’s legacy, including the destruction of 1,000 letters by James’ daughter Lucia. He was so vociferous and aggressive in his protection of the Estate that it has been suggested that an exhibition of his most extreme letters should be mounted! Gordon Bowker’s recent biography of Joyce had to be researched in secrecy and written with great care so as not to be deemed to have breached copyright (and thus risk a lawsuit).
Towards the end of his period of stewardship, Stephen was successfully sued in America, in an action that “spelt the end to one of literature’s most notorious copyright dictatorships.” In 2005, he announced that he would not grant any further permissions to quote anything by Joyce. His defence was, in part, the desire to protect the privacy of the Joyce family (of which he is the only surviving member, with no children) and also, it seems, that academics and other critics had engaged in inappropriate scholarship that made too much of James’ work. He even criticised the designation of Bloomsday, holding that it should be called Ulysses day, on the grounds that Bloom does not appear in the book until the third chapter.
Stephen Joyce may have had a point when he insisted at a 1986 gathering of Joyce scholars that Dubliners, A Portrait, and even Ulysses can be read simply “without scholarly guides, theories and intricate explanations”. “If my grandfather was here, he would have died laughing”, he asserted.
Now that copyright is a limited problem, what might be the impact on understanding, as opposed to performances or adaptations, of Ulysses? Bloomsday celebrations may well be able to make more fulsome use of Ulysses now that Stephen cannot block readings. There seems to be a prospect of new versions of Finnegans Wake,given the numerous revisions by Joyce. It appears that there are multiple drafts of some parts of Ulysses that may be published, and other unpublished papers that may shed some light on Joyce’s work (although the copyright position of these, outside the United States, is unclear). A new edition of Ulysses is already on its way, and it is also possible that a final further revised edition of Ulysses may come out, incorporating interpretations of any unpublished materials. But what is likely is that new scholarly works can now be published without the inhibitions placed by Stephen’s restrictions. Whether that will be an unequivocally positive development is another matter.
Here are links to some articles about the expiration of the copyright on Joyce’s work: