Joyce heir sued in copyright action

A Stanford English professor has teamed up with Creative Commons mastermind Lawrence Lessig to sue James Joyce’s grandson for refusing to grant permission to quote from the author’s copyrighted work in a biography. She claims that the younger Joyce “violated copyright law and trod on her academic freedom of speech.”

The soft-spoken Shloss is an unlikely litigant. Fifteen years ago, she simply sought to write about Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James and Nora Joyce, who was born in a pauper’s ward and ended her days in a mental institution.

To support her thesis — that Lucia was sane, creative and a dark muse behind “Finnegan’s Wake” — Shloss needed to quote from James Joyce’s prose and letters between him and Lucia.

Because the law allows authors to quote from copyrighted works “for purposes of commentary and criticism” without needing approval from the rights-holder — a concept broadly known as “fair use” — Shloss didn’t expect problems.

But Stephen Joyce, the last heir to the Joyce estate, disapproved of her project.

“He wrote back a scathing letter that said no, he would not help me — and furthermore, I was forbidden to use a list of materials,” she said. In a second letter, “he presented an even more extensive list of things I couldn’t use.” He also threatened suit, saying, “We are willing to take any necessary action.”

Joyce also wrote angry letters to her publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He has said he destroyed letters from Lucia.

Joyce, who lives in France and rarely speaks to the news media, is deeply hostile to scholars attempting to decipher his grandfather’s enigmatic and often personal work. He once called academics “rats and lice — they should be exterminated.”

The verdict will have implications not only for scholars and academics, but for anyone wishing to reinterpret or build on an author’s work where the heirs — as in the case of Joyce, Bertolt Brecht, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett and J.D. Salinger– vigilantly enforce copyright. In other words, Stephany Aulenback’s Beckett for Babies: not dead yet.


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