Post-Bloomsday report proves by algebra that Joyce's grandson is Stephen's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father—with special appearance by litigatin' Larry Lessig

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The New Yorker reports in detail on an issue Reason readers knew about years ago: the struggle over James Joyce's legacy, with writers, scholars, fans, and artists on one side, and on the other the author's pugnacious grandson Stephen James Joyce. The last descendent of the Ulysses author has single-handedly dismantled of the once-flourishing Joyce industry, in the process becoming a walking, talking argument for reduced copyright terms. Like everything written about Stephen Joyce, this is a completely unsympathetic portrait, focusing on his maniacal enforcement of copyright on his grandfather's works, the most recent of which was published in 1939. (He's also waged a jihad against all letters, correspondence, and memorabilia related to his grandparents, about which more in a moment.) But there are some elements here that complicate the view of Stephen as a cultural villain. For one, his insulting refusals to grant permissions are sometimes funny:

Stephen wrote back, "Neither I nor the others who manage this Estate will touch your hare-brained scheme with a barge pole in any manner, shape or form." When turning down a request for permission from an academic whose work was going to be published by Purdue, he said that he objected to the name for the university's sports teams: the Boilermakers. (He considered it vulgar.) Michael Groden, a scholar at the University of Western Ontario, spent seven years creating a multimedia version of "Ulysses," only to have Stephen block the project, in 2003, with a demand for a permissions fee of one and a half million dollars. (Before Stephen controlled the Joyce estate, such fees were nominal.) … "You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you'll never quote a Joyce text again," Stephen told Groden…

[To the author Carol Loeb Shloss]: "My response regarding helping and working with you on a book about Lucia is straightforward and unequivocal: it is a definitive NO."

This article makes a pretty good case that Stephen isn't just greedy or misanthropic, but that he actually sees himself as helping to preserve his grandfather's legacy. His way of doing so demonstrates that he's an idiot who doesn't have a strong grasp of his grandfather's work. (Among other things, he objects to the term "Bloomsday" because he believes Leopold Bloom is a less autobiographical character than Stephen Dedalus and thus should not be the focus of Ulysses.) More important, he doesn't seem to realize how contingent authors' legacies really are. Better writers than Joyce have gone out of fashion for centuries at a time, and only come back into vogue because some later writer or artist or playwright or filmmaker has rediscovered them. If Stephen Joyce were really trying to preserve a legacy he'd be herniating himself trying to help anybody who takes an interest in doing anything new with his grandfather's books. "It is better to be pissed off than pissed on," he says at one point; but for a writer, being forgotten is worse than either of those.

Stephen Joyce is on somewhat better ground with his efforts to suppress personal papers and other documentation that may embarrass family members. I don't see a problem in a descendent refusing to release papers that were never published, nor even in an estate holder using his personal authority to pressure others to do the same. This is the focus of a new lawsuit by Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford guru of internet IP and "free" culture. Lessig is representing Schloss, who was forced to cut substantial amounts of quoted material from her biography of Joyce's daughter—most of it apparently from personal correspondence. Since that stuff too enjoys excessive copyright protection, the case is probably a step in the right direction. But the real problem is that a book published in 1922 is still in copyright in 2006—a legal setup that goes far beyond encouraging creativity and just compensation, and serves only to support the bad habits of underachieving grandchildren.

Related: "Mad Lit Professor Puts Finishing Touches On Bloomsday Device"

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  1. Sounds like class A jerk.

  2. Reason #4,527 to abolish copyright.

  3. If I ever received such a letter from him, I would travel to wherever he is and slap him across the face with a silk glove.

  4. No copyright should last longer than any patent.

  5. Now if my wife is my grandmother, then I’m her grandchild,
    And everytime I think of it, it nearly drives me wild,
    For now I have become the strangest case you ever saw
    As husband of my grandmother, I am my own grandpa!

  6. “But the real problem is that a book published in 1922 is still in copyright in 2006”

    Sorry to be pedantic, but under US copyright law a book published before 1923 is no longer in copyright.

    I don’t know about copyrights only lasting as long as patents – a thirty year copyright term would be quite acceptable. Longer terms than that provide little or no extra incentive to create, and do serious harm to the public domain.

  7. Look at all the publicity he’s been getting recently! He may be smarter than you think…

  8. “Sounds like a class A jerk.”
    I absolutely agree. However, I think that is his right, regardless of how much of a dick or how wrongheaded he might be in his fanatical control over the Joyce estate. There is an absolutely endless list of other subjects/titles/(bodies of work) which are open game for this kind of research. Why is it so essential that we hassle over Joyce. Right now. ?? Huffing and puffing about the grandson’s antics is just as infantile as his obsessive-compulsive foppery. It is the practice of critical thinking which is edifying and most useful, not its object which in most cases is non-essential….

  9. I have to disagree with you, Joe – tolerating idiocy only encourages more people to behave like idiots, until we’re left sharpening our critical faculty on re-runs of soap operas.

  10. In the United States, at least, the constitution motivates copyright as a means of aiding education and there is a fair-use doctrian. This might provide a means of challenging such restiction on use of material of historical and literary interest in the service of legitimate scholarship.

  11. Sorry to be pedantic, but under US copyright law a book published before 1923 is no longer in copyright.

    The Joyce estate and Random House have both argued, with some success, that the copyright should date to 1934, when the first legal version of Ulysses was published in the United States. (Groden’s interactive project, for example, was shot down even though they tried to argue that it was a U.S. rather than a Canadian project.) In any event, the book will be in copyright in Europe well into the 21st century, and in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc. This even though Ulysses went out of copyright in both the U.S. and Europe in the late nineties, then was improbably brought back out of the public domain when the EU extended its copyright terms and the U.S. passed the Sonny Bono law. Most Ulysses-related projects in recent years, such as Sean Walsh’s move version Bloom, were only made because the makers argued in court that they had begun during the period the book was in the public domain. There are many books that have had similarly illogical copyright histories.

    Many of the details about the copyright history are in the New Yorker article, but the best study of this issue was an article by Bob Spoo in the Yale Law Review.

  12. Damn, juggler, I didn’t know you were one of those weirdos that thinks fiction is more important than technological progress.

    There is a world of difference between a patent on an invented light bulb and a copyright on a work created out of pure imagination such as an Isaac Asimov book.

    As if every word and idea in any book is 100% original. That has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.

  13. Forget it Juggler, you entered the Welfare Queen realm of Hit and Run. Apparently, libertarians loathe when government or other glad-handers mess with their real or personal property, but intellectual property is worthy only of collectivist appropriation.

  14. Happyjuggler, BAI: I don’t think most people (on this thread) are arguing that copyright itself is a bad idea. The claim is that a reduced copyright term will preserve the benefits of copyright without creating stupid situations. The worst problem, actually, isn’t the books with copyright owners who are too restrictive, or high prices for still-popular works; the problem is the roughly 75% of books that are still under copyright, but no one knows who has the copyright, or no one cares to enforce it, so it’s actually not possible to reproduce them.

  15. Regardless of the other arguments here, the thing about

    he objects to the term “Bloomsday” because he believes Leopold Bloom is a less autobiographical character than Stephen Dedalus and thus should not be the focus of Ulysses.

    is nonsense. It doesn’t matter if the book is *really* about Stephen, or if he’s an autobiographical character; people have “Bloomsday” and not “Stephenday” because Bloom is a much more colorful, compelling character.

  16. Great title.

  17. “The Joyce estate and Random House have both argued, with some success, that the copyright should date to 1934, when the first legal version of Ulysses was published in the United States.”
    Ahh, okay.

    “then was improbably brought back out of the public domain when the EU extended its copyright terms and the U.S. passed the Sonny Bono law.”
    Sonny Bono didn’t bring any works out of the public domain in the US (although the EU Term Directive did, according to the European Court of Justice). If Sonny Bono had brought works out of the public domain, then only works published before 1911 would be guaranteed to be in the public domain.

    “Books off-copyright sell for about $2 per copy, which may be dramatically lower in percentage terms, remains pretty close to the same in actual $ terms. At least for fiction.”
    Despite the name, copyright doesn’t just mean the right to make copies. The article is talking about the right to make derivative works, which is not the same thing. Making derivative works is by definition creative activity, and extending copyright terms stifles this creativity – which is hardly what copyright should be all about, is it?

    “Let authors get rich enough togive totheir kids and grandkids if that is what it takes to get them to keep writing.”
    The problem here is that the authors get their copyright term in the beginning, and then get greedy and lobby the government for more, and more, and more. The public domain doesn’t have such strong lobby groups, with the possible exception of librarians.
    There’s a great quote on this subject by Mr Justice Laddie, an English judge:
    “No one is going to be more inclined to write computer programs or speeches, compose music or design buildings because 50, 60 or 70 years after his death a distant relative whom he has never met might still be getting royalties”
    To put it another way, how does extending the term of something someone wrote in the 1920s or 30s encourage that author to create more?

    “Apparently, libertarians loathe when government or other glad-handers mess with their real or personal property, but intellectual property is worthy only of collectivist appropriation.”
    Ahh, and the good old “intellectual property is the same thing as real property or personal property” argument gets trotted out again. There’s nothing libertarian about lobbying the government to increase the duration or scope of a monopoly they’ve given you.
    In this case, the so-called “collectivist appropriation” only occurs when the government declines to act. Appropriation through inaction is certainly a novel theory, but I wouldn’t describe it as intellectually honest.

  18. Maybe he’s inspired by another narrative with a character named Leo Bloom in it. Maybe he thinks he can preserve his grandfather’s legacy better with a flop than with a hit, as in The Producers.

  19. Jagadul,

    Your argument makes the most sense to me out of everyone who argued against long term copyrights.

    It is true that copyrights are an invention of government and the government could set the copyright length at zero if it wanted to. But incredibly few people would write books then, except perhaps university professors who force their students to buy them to pass the course.

    So it is up to the government to create a length greater than zero to encourage creative endeavors that otherwise would be effectively 100% externalities, i.e. the creator captures little or nothing of the upside of his creation. That makes sense, and thanks to Jagadul I can conceive of an upper boundary ballpark that makes sense. Thanks.

  20. I didn’t know Taki was heir to the Joyce estate.

    What was the name of that guy no can remember from the 60s that was a libertarian genius but there are no books or anything about cause he copyrighted everything?

  21. What was the name of that guy no can remember from the 60s that was a libertarian genius but there are no books or anything about cause he copyrighted everything?

    El Hombre Sin Nombre.

    With regards to Robert Rodriguez.

  22. So who’s this “Joyce” guy and why should I care?

  23. It is true that copyrights are an invention of government and the government could set the copyright length at zero if it wanted to. But incredibly few people would write books then…

    From the $2 remaindered book comment before this, it would seem that you are solely arguing from an audience member’s (wallet’s) point of view. That’s not at issue–the problem is that extended copyrights make it very difficult if not impossible for someone to make a derivative work from a piece of art. After a period of years, art should be considered enough a part of the culture that everyone should be able to comment on it and create variations. If there is any book that has earned its place in culture, it is Ulysses, making Stephen Joyce the posterchild for absurd copyright defenses. Anyone should be able to write books about Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, etc. and their relation to James Joyce, but Stephen stops it all because he finds analysis of his grandfather’s work silly. Why should grandchildren be able to make decisions like these?

    As has been mentioned many times, Disney made its name on works that had fallen out into public doman but is now the spearhead for preventing virtually anything from becoming public domain. Which is why, of course, things like the Creative Commons License were created.

  24. I don’t recall if this was ever mentioned here before, but apparently Joyce’s estate (from what I can tell from the article Stephen James Joyce only owned a 50% stake at that time) interfered with Kate Bush’s “Sensual World”:

    “I think the most frustrating and difficult to write was the song, “ The Sensual World.” Uh, you’ve probably heard some of the story, that originally it was written to the lyrics at the end of Ulysses, and uh, I just couldn’t believe how the whole thing came together, it was so… It was just like it was meant to be. We had this sort of instrumental piece, and uh, I had this idea for like a rhythmic melody, and I just thought of the book, and went and got it, and the words fitted – they just fitted, the whole thing fitted, it was ridiculous. You know the song was saying, “Yes! Yes!” [Laughter from audience]

    And when I asked for permission, you know, they said, “No! No!” [Lots of laughter from audience]

    That was one of the hardest things for me to swallow. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was that, um, I wasn’t allowed to have access to this great piece of work that I thought was public. And in fact I really didn’t think you had to get permission but that you would just pay a royalty. So I was really, really frustrated about it. And, um… kind of rewrote the words, trying to keep the same – same rhythm and sounds. And, um, eventually, through rewriting the words we also changed the piece of music that now happens in the choruses, so if they hadn’t obstructed the song, it would have been a very different song. So, to look at it positively, although it was very difficult, in the end, I think it was, it was probably worth all the trouble. Thank you very much.”

  25. ” Better writers than Joyce have gone out of fashion for centuries at a time”

    Just curious. Who, in your opinion, are they?

  26. “What was the name of that guy no can remember from the 60s that was a libertarian genius but there are no books or anything about cause he copyrighted everything?”

    Andrew Galambos. Here’s an article about him by Harry Browne:
    http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/Galambos.htm

  27. You can’t have this dicussion without considering fair use…

    http://www.deuceofclubs.com/write/fair_use.htm

  28. I have a great copyright length, 30 years or the life of the creator. For corporations, they get 30 years. Musicians, movies, etc. make the bulk of their profits in the first couple of years anyways. I don’t buy juggler’s reasoning why copyrights deserve more protection than patents. This is especially true when you consider that it’s a lot easier to create a similar prodct to compete with the patent than the same with a copyright. Especially when most creative works are built on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them.

  29. And I don’t see the pressing societal need for copyrights to expire soon. I like Jagadul’s point about length creating technical problems, but I don’t buy the notion that an eccentricity in an heir somehow is a pressing need.

    The absence of derivative works is hardly problematic for society. create something original instead!

  30. The absence of derivative works is hardly problematic for society. create something original instead!

    The absence of derivative works is problematic for the author–how can anyone write anything about James Joyce if his grandson is constantly saying no one can? Joyce himself thought that people would be figuring out his puzzles and word games forever, but, if we can’t write about it, then that’s impossible.

  31. Steve

    Well Ben Jonson, for one. He rocks like Slayer.

  32. juggler,
    Having copyrights that last almost a century stifles creativity without encouraging it. The marginal number of works that would be created with a 30-50 year term versus those that would not created without a 90 year protection term is heavily weighted towards far less works being created than being encouraged. Look at Disney, the vast majority of their major films are derivative works. Snow White, the Little Mermaid, the Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, etc. Outside of Disney, there would be no Young Frankenstein or Blacula. Are you telling me the artistic landscape would be better without modern interpretation of classic works and stories? If it would not be better, why is that true of art made in the past century. Shitty remakes aside (and keep in mind, they are shitty because they are constrained by the original copyright holder, so there is less freedom to do something interesting with it).

    Granted, there isn’t any pressing need for this in a ticking time-bomb sense, but there is a great deal of art and analysis being stifled. I’m not a eliminate copyright absolutist, but there is a reasonable middle-ground between excessively long copyrights and no copyrights.

  33. Outside of Disney, there would be no Young Frankenstein or Blacula.

    And there’s comedy/tragedy in fact that Ulysses was based upon The Odyssey. Go make something original instead, James! It’s Homer’s intellectual property!

  34. Whether something is original or derivative is just a matter of degree. I like Newton’s statement that the only reason he could see so far was that he stood on the shoulders of giants. The whole copyright and patent industry has gotten so out of control that you wonder if it was enforced way back when if we would have ever had a Newton. And I’m not sure where I read it, maybe in Reason, but I had some vague recollection of an article that mentioned that even basketball players were discussing taking out a patent on their moves (all of which are derivative of earlier moves of others). When people say, “There will never be another Michael Jordan,” I wonder if this is what they really mean.

  35. I have a great copyright length, 30 years or the life of the creator. For corporations, they get 30 years.

    I’d be more inclined to 50 years or life+20, whichever comes second, and 70 years for corporations. You can call me a corporate whore as long as you pay me; but by “corporations” I also mean people like the Fraunces Tavern Museum, Fantagraphics, Captain Spaulding’s House of Horror, and your favorite alt.weekly. I don’t know that any of those organizations make much use of corporate copyright or ever would, but with a generous copyright you’re at least encouraging them to keep creating new stuff with the content they own. Under this copyright term, for example, DC would still make money on this year’s Superman Returns but would not make money on 2009’s Untitled Superman Returns Sequel, which sounds like a win-win. (I mean, since we don’t live in the ideal world, where DC and everybody else involved would have to pay massive fines for making either movie.)

  36. ” Better writers than Joyce have gone out of fashion for centuries at a time”

    Just curious. Who, in your opinion, are they?

    Just counting the dead white males: Dante Alighieri was not well and widely known until the Romantic period and afterward. A lot of Greek stuff was fairly obscure during the medieval period. You can judge for yourself whether Milton is a better writer than Joyce, but he’s been downgraded at least since the Modernist period, and in due time will be rejuvenated by people who see something of value they want to exploit in his work. It’s true that many lower-tier people get resurrected and overrated, as may have been the case with the Modernists’ support for John Donne. My point is that literary reputation isn’t written in stone; it’s kept alive by enthusiasts.

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