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Literary Legacies Hostage to Heirs

According to a recent New Yorker article, any scholars who want to “quote sizable passages or to reproduce manuscript pages from those works of Joyce’s that remain under copyright—including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—as well as from more than three thousand letters and several dozen unpublished manuscript fragments,” must get permission from Joyce’s son, Stephen James Joyce. SJJ, in turn, delights in blocking access, and has commented that academics are like “’rats and lice—they should be exterminated!’” Apparently Larry Lessig, my law school classmate Robert Spoo, and David Olson, are attempting to help a scholar (Carol Shloss) battle the estate in an upcoming showdown. SJJ brags that he’ll pour resources into the fight, and delights in recounting how tenaciously he fought SUNY Buffalo to regain ownership of an “engraved charm” years ago.

The New Yorker article focuses on a dispute over letters, a type of writing where this type of familial control is most understandable. Joyce may well have wanted certain missives kept private. But isn’t it bizarre that the mercurial and temperamental SJJ has such influence over Joyce studies? I can’t understand why any public policy should permit such a person to unilaterally veto uses of passages from Ulysses. One more example of the “uniformity costs” of copyright, I guess; private letters and public novels are subject to (roughly) the same arbitrary ownership rules.

(I know, I know, fair use law protects use of the latter more than the former, but as Lessig has said, fair use has basically waned to the point that it’s little more than the right to hire a lawyer. And who’d like to battle SJJ in court?)