James Joyce: A Copyright Version of Ulysses, or Why We Need DPLA & HathiTrust to Fight

“I see a strong advocacy role for the DPLA, to say that a better balance is needed in the twenty-first century, so that the landscape for reading and research isn’t further circumscribed and hindered by digital friction.” — Dan Cohen, director of DPLA

“The ability to produce accessible things for the print disabled will be able to be done. Not just by us…but by any entity that is serving various communities. The work is extremely valuable….the fundamental purpose of copyright, which is to promote progress of science and the useful arts.” —Paul Courant, HathiTrust and Dean of Libraries, University of Michigan

These two quotes illustrate the important role that organizations like DPLA and HathiTrust can fill in today’s litigious copyright environment and why it’s important that they are taking on these roles. Fair use is becoming more difficult to establish, and “infringement” is getting a stricter definition. But as Copyright Librarian’s post notes, cases involving fair use tend to involve a large, well-funded organization going after someone with little means, who consults a lawyer and agrees to a settlement, even when the law is on their side.

How does this affect us? Consider the case of James Joyce scholarship. Joyce is not my cup of tea, but I recognize the important role that he played in 20th century literature, as does many, many scholars. But study of Joyce began to disappear because of the strict interpretation of fair use from the executor of his literary estate, his grandson. Stephen Joyce refused to let scholars quote his grandfather’s work if it cast the author (or, more accurately, members of the author’s family) in a manner he felt diminished his work, although he would sometimes relent if he received an exorbitant fee. He refused to let any work appear online in any form. Libraries that held unpublished work or letters were hamstrung in being able to share them. Joyce’s work passed into the public domain in 2012, 70 years after his death, meaning that anything he published while alive became available. There are still some posthumously  works and letters that the younger Joyce maintains his death grip on, but Joyce scholars rejoiced (reJoyced?*) at the expiry.

By all means, I think people should be rewarded/paid for their intellectual work—I’m not arguing that we don’t give authors and artists, and their heirs, some power to benefit from their labor. But the law can be so narrowly interpreted as to stop discussion and study–it allowed the works of a major literary star with tremendous influence to be outside the realm of academia and certainly limited progress of science and the useful arts.

An assistant professor of English at any university is not going to take on the Stephen Joyces of this world. But a coalition of major libraries with funders and backing, with an interest in opening up digital content to all, with clearly stated goals of serving the public good will bring together the best minds and the best ways to establish a more sensible vision of copyright. They have to. Because this is a shameful state of affairs, and we shouldn’t have to wait out copyright bullies.

*Sorry: I had to.

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5 responses to “James Joyce: A Copyright Version of Ulysses, or Why We Need DPLA & HathiTrust to Fight

  1. Stevie – More and more, librarians must be prepared to advocate on behalf of their institutions and their patrons. This is a great example of taking such a stance from an informed and patron-centric position.

  2. Stevie, I really liked such a concrete example of copyright laws and the sometimes ill-effects of guarding a work too closely. In my experience, knowledge begets knowledge. The more access people have to works of literature, art, etc. the better off society is as a whole!

    • That’s my feeling too. As it happens, my husband was a Joyce scholar in another life, and it seems kind of ridiculous that someone who wrote about change and broad swathes of characters should have his work withheld.

  3. I remember reading about this last year. Awesome article here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/01/james-joyce-public-domain.html
    I feel like rules should be rules, either you allow use or you don’t, and despite being the copyright holder, users should be able to protest your decision based on historical use. So if he had allowed people to use the works – with a positive light – anyone should then be allowed to use the same works.

    • I also believe that fair use is fair use. It’s insane to me that he’d sue the City of Dublin for staging a live public reading specifically to celebrate the work! How many more readers would the work have received if he wasn’t a complete troll about the copyright?

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