On December 31, 2011—70 years after James Joyce’s death in Zurich—the Irish writer’s published works passed into the public domain in the European Union. The end to copyright protection of a major author’s works is an event in and of itself, but to many Joyceans, the event is made sweeter because the Joyce estate has in recent years protected the author’s copyrights with an eagle eye and an iron fist. In a recent article, the Independent (UK) called Stephen Joyce—the author’s grandson and a trustee of the estate—“the most intractable defender of any copyright in modern times.”
It seems the estate’s hard-line stance was a result of wounds inflicted by the biographer Richard Ellmann’s publication of some “pornographic” letters Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora. Thereafter, the estate’s parsimony largely prevented biographers and scholars from quoting the works in their publications, effectively chilling large tracts of the critical landscape (fair use is not explicitly recognized in the EU). The estate also did its best to prevent public readings and performances of Joyce’s work in Europe, such as the staged events that have become customary every June 16, when fans gather around the world to celebrate “Bloomsday,” a commemoration of the novel Ulysses and its protagonist, Leopold Bloom. This is perhaps an ironic stance from the estate of an author whose works relied on a robust public domain, borrowing as they did from so much popular music, literature, and journalism.
The conflict between the Joyce estate and potential Joyce scholars came to a head early last decade, when a Stanford scholar named Carol Schloss attempted to publish a biography of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. The Joyce estate, as it had so many times before, pressured the publisher to remove certain passages or face a lawsuit, and the publisher acquiesced. What set this case apart is that the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, then led by Lawrence Lessig, took the case and was able not only to convince the estate to permit publication of the material, but also to recover costs and attorney’s fees from the estate. This was widely viewed as a moral victory for scholars everywhere in their often fraught dealings with literary estates.
While the newly-acquired public domain status of the works certainly ought to increase the quality and quantity of Joyce scholarship—as well as Bloomsday celebrations— in the EU, the Joyce estate still controls the EU rights to unpublished writings, and these are arguably of greater import to scholars than the published writings. Moreover, under U.S. law, works first published here in editions between 1923 and 1977—including Ulysses (1934) and Finnegans Wake (1939)—still enjoy copyright protection. For more information on the copyright status of Joyce’s works, the International James Joyce Foundation provides guidelines.