The Bloomsday litigants

The grandson of James Joyce, Stephen James Joyce, has used his control of the copyrights to Joyce’s work to impede scholarly research by threatening to withhold consent to any academic who would veer into investigation of the family history. He spent a hundred thousand dollars of the estate’s money to halt publication of a new edition of “Ulysses”; has “blocked or discouraged” a number of readings; and threatened to sue the National Library of Ireland when it sought to display its copies of Joyce’s manuscripts. In revenge for Michael Groden’s favorable blurb of a scholar Stephen Joyce disliked, Joyce quoted a price of a million and a half dollars for Groden’s right to quote “Ulysses” in the multimedia work he spent seven years preparing. D.T. Max in the June 19 New Yorker explores the younger Joyce’s battles, and also mentions other litigious literary estates.

More than a dozen Joyce scholars told me that what was once an area of exploration and discovery now resembles an embattled outpost of copyright law. Robert Spoo, who used to edit the James Joyce Quarterly, which is published by the University of Tulsa, quit the job to become a copyright lawyer. “New biographies, digital representations of Joyce’s work, analyses of Joyce’s manuscripts, and, to a lesser extent, criticism—they hardly exist,” he said. “People either despaired of doing them . . . or the demands were so high that they just didn’t feel it was worth continuing the discussions.” Although more than fifteen hundred letters and dozens of manuscript drafts have been discovered since Stephen gained control of the estate, scholars told me that no new biographies of Joyce or his family are under way. The estate has not licensed online versions of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” seminal works for hypertext theory. …

[W]hen Stephen Joyce succeeded in muffling a whole field of study with a combination of litigation and bravado, others took notice. Paul Zukofsky, the son of the poet Louis Zukofsky, said of Stephen’s efforts, “What I’ve heard sounds very, very good. He is a staunch defender of rights.” The Samuel Beckett estate sues theatre companies that mount unorthodox productions of the plays. A year after Stephen announced his suit against Danis Rose’s “Ulysses,” the Nabokov estate fought an unsuccessful battle to prevent the publication in English of “Lo’s Diary,” an Italian novel based on “Lolita.”

Larry Lessig has taken the fair use case on behalf of scholar Carol Loeb Shloss, and says he plans to file suit today over Joyce’s “copyright misuse.” (Lessig, who previously forthrightly blamed his own failings as an advocate for his 7-2 loss in Eldred, now blames the “conservatives on the Court” in this article; not clear if this reflects a shift in Lessig’s opinion, or the slant of the New Yorker staff.) Lessig’s insistence on a misuse, rather than a right of fair use, legal theory is unfortunate: the suit would seek to revoke the copyright, and, if successful, could have implications that would make copyright litigation more, rather than less, likely. (Update: Lattman has a copy of the complaint, actually filed on Monday.)

As the article notes, the elder Joyce was a litigious sort himself; his suit for slander against a fellow English expatriate was a subplot in my favorite play, Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties.”

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