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.