Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Joyceans and the copyfight

Saturday's plenary concerned Carol Loeb Schloss's epic struggle with the Joyce Estate over access to Joyce's Finnegans Wake notes and Joyce's daughter Lucia's writings for her biography of the latter. The Estate -- and by synecdoche Stephen James Joyce, the author's grandson and Lucia's nephew -- did their level best to prevent the biography's publication, relying heavily on a tenuous understanding of copyright law.

The Estate's tactics as Schloss described them were ferocious: they tried to get SUNY Buffalo to deny her access to its store of Joyceana, and later sent at lawyer to the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin to peruse some documents she had used, this in order to argue that the documents were of no value to scholarship. Beyond that, Schloss said, the Estate got personal tried to discredit her as a scholar, brushing aside as worthless dross all of her published works in Joyce studies. A great anecdote: the law firm representing the Estate in this case, Jones Day, also represents Halliburton.

Schloss eventually did publish her book; but her publisher, Farar Strauss Giroux, insisted huge chunks of quotations from Joyce and Lucia be omitted; and this, she said, greatly dimished her work's credibility. The biography was subsequently savaged by reviewers.

Late last year, the Estate essentially settled with Schloss, who had brought a lawsuit against them alleging copyright misuse, when it ended up filing a "covenant not to sue" Schloss for copyright infringement. This -- alas, too late -- granted Schloss permission to use what she wanted. Schloss said Saturday there aren't any immediate plans to release a complete text; however, all the excised parts are available online -- another happy consequence of the settlement. Meantime, the two parties are still arguing over whether the estate should cover Schloss's legal fees. Whether or not they do (from what I could tell) will be of no consequence to Schloss, because she was represented pro bono by the Stanford University Fair Use Project, whose mission it is to go after copyright abusers.

Stephen Joyce, Schloss said, always chalked up his resistance to the biography to the family's right to privacy. Schloss said she took the question of family privacy very seriously. But, she asked, was it SJ's place or right to assert her biography would violate that? She went so far as to suggest SJ cared not for his aunt, and was actually scornful of her because of some slight in the terms of her will. And, contrary to what the Slate reviewer asserts, Schloss wasn't in it to get at salacious details about of a dysfunctional family. On the contrary, she said, her whole purpose was to investigate how Lucia inspired the writing of Finnegans Wake.

(Bit of a tangent: SJ famously criticized Richard Ellmann for publishing Joyce's letters, saying it had stripped the family naked, or words to that effect. Apropos of Schloss, Christine van Boheemen-Saaf centered her paper the previous day around the 1909 "dirty letters" Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora. Van Boheemen-Saaf assertied the letters marked a pivotal development in Joyce's fiction writing -- at the time he was reworking _Stephen Hero_ into _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ -- in their rapid vascillations from the lyrical and wholesome to the obscene and back.)

Schloss's victory proved mostly a moral one. Because the case never went to trial, there's no judge's verdict and therefore no precedent set, no case law to pave the way for other Joyceans butting heads with the Estate. One of Schloss's lawyers, Robert Spoo of the San Francisco law firm Howard Rice, said it's still to early to assess whether the settlement has weakened the Estate's position or put an end to its copyright misuse and attempts to block other scholars digging behind published texts and into early manuscripts, letters, and diaries.

Another of Schloss's lawyers, David Olson of the Fair Use Center, said the pending decision on whether the Estate should cover the legal fees will be important for similar copyfights to come. Most scholars don't have the means to mount such legal challanges, and most law firms aren't willing to proceed with them on a pro bono basis. But if Schloss succeeds in having the Estate pay legal fees -- thus establishing that the Estates of artists can be held to account for interfering in scholarship -- it could make other firms more receptive to mounting legal battles of this sort. Earlier in the day, Bill Brockman, noted there are something like 1,500 unpublished Joyce letters out there, meaning there's still a bit of scholarship left to be done in the area.

Further reading: The New Yorker has two articles on Schloss and Stephen Joyce.

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