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The Joyce Saga - Literary Heirs & Copyright Abuse

(June 15, 2006) - An article in this week’s New Yorker magazine chronicles the aggressive activities of James Joyce’s grandson Stephen in suppressing Joyce scholarship, not only by refusing permission to quote copyrighted writings, but by asserting control over materials that aren’t even part of the James Joyce estate. Such materials include letters and medical records of Joyce’s daughter Lucia, and the 1922 first edition of Joyce’s great novel Ulysses, which is now in the public domain.

Coinciding with a lawsuit filed by the Stanford Center for Internet & Society against the Joyce estate, the article publicizes a problem that has long been known in the literary world – the tendency of some heirs to use copyright as a lever to control what is said, or not said, about their famous forbears.

The plaintiff in the suit is literary scholar Carol Shloss, whose 2003 book, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, was cut by her publisher in response to threats from Stephen Joyce. More than 30 pages of quotations were excised, according to the complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco, which asserts that as a consequence, the book lacked strong documentation, and reviews faulted it as being more “wish fulfillment” than scholarship.

Shloss now wants to amplify the record by posting a website with the excised quotes, keyed to passages in the text of her book where they should have appeared. Stephen and the estate wrote to Shloss, to Stanford University where she teaches, and to the Center for Internet & Society forbidding use of the material – some of which, according to the complaint, is not even within the estate’s copyright, and the rest of which, they say, is fair use.

What gives particular flavor to this case is Stephen Joyce’s uniquely nasty and bullying style – examples of which are given in the complaint – combined with the iconic status of his grandfather in the literary canon. Ulysses may be difficult reading (and Finnegan’s Wake verges on the impossible), but both are inspired, lyrical, and heroic in their ambitions. Joyce encouraged commentary; in addition, he was a free speech champion because he opened up literary expression to the full range of human experience, both spiritual and carnal, and as a consequence was the target of obscenity prosecutions. Ulysses was banned in both England and America until the 1930s. So it is ironic that Joyce’s grandson has made a career out of attempting to stifle, control, and leverage his copyright power to exact various concessions from librarians and scholars as a condition of quoting any of his grandfather’s words.

In addition to seeking a judgment that will allow Shloss’s website to go public, the lawsuit alleges that the conduct of Stephen and the estate amounts to copyright abuse. A finding of abuse would be a big step toward encouraging copyright bullies to be more circumspect in their efforts to censor scholarship in the future.

Update: In February 2007, the federal court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the case. In addition to finding that there was a live controversy, the court ruled that Shloss stated a viable claim for "copyright misuse." The following month, Stephen and the Joyce Estate settled the case by agreeing not to sue Shloss for publishing any of the materials in question. The only limitation is that any Web publication "must be accessible only within the United States to computer with a U.S. Internet Protocol ("IP") address." See "An Important Victory For Carol Shloss, Scholarship And Fair Use," and the Settlement Agreement, on the Stanford Center for Internet & Society Web site.

In May 2009, the federal court ordered the Joyce estate to pay Shloss more than $326,000 in attorney's fees. The Stanford Fair Use Project reported the following September that "after initially appealing that decision to the Ninth Circuit, the Estate thought better of it and agreed to pay $240,000 in fees to resolve the matter once and for all." See http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/fair-use-project.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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