Joyce and the people


BLOOMSDAY NEXT Thursday will be the last to take place under the current James Joyce copyright regime. And Joyce enthusiasts everywhere will heave a sigh of relief at its passing. Copyright in Joyce’s works is vested in his estate for 70 years since his death in 1941. So at the end of 2011 copyright restrictions are lifted. Much more than Bloomsday is affected by this change; the copyright curbs have weighed heavily on scholarly work, as well as on performing artists, theatre producers, TV and radio projects, and many other areas.

It is understandable and reasonable that the heirs of an author (at this stage the sole beneficiary of the estate is Joyce’s grandson Stephen) would gain a financial benefit for a certain time from that author’s work, in the same way that a descendant who has been left a farm or a house is entitled to a financial gain from it. What has been deeply problematic, especially in the case of the Joyce estate, has been the degree of control exercised.

That control has been maintained with a view to protecting Joyce’s writing – and also aspects of Joyce’s life – from what the estate sees as distortions, intrusions and misuses. The aim may be worthy; but its execution has been widely perceived as arbitrary, wilful and, often, based on sheer misunderstanding.

Over the years, and especially since Stephen Joyce took over its running, the estate has acquired a rather fearsome reputation for threats of litigation, actual litigation and general intransigence. It has the distinction of having triggered the passing of an Act of the Oireachtas (the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Act, 2004) to forestall the possibility of action by it against a Ulyssesexhibition in the National Library of Ireland. Many younger Joyce scholars have been terrified that their work would fall foul of the estate’s vigilance. Few tears will be shed at the passing of such a regime.

The lifting of copyright constraints should enable a new freedom and flowering of Joyce activities, both of the scholarly, and the more public, sort. (Plans are already afoot for such developments.) Performers and artists will have a great deal more scope to experiment with Joyce’s work. This is very much to be welcomed; not all these productions will necessarily be of great merit (during a brief copyright interregnum in the early 1990s, some distinctly dubious projects, especially scholarly, emerged) but the way to handle this is through a vigilant and responsible criticism, not through police actions of any kind. It is not overstating the case to say that at long last, Joyce will belong to the people.