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At war with the Joyce estate Add to ...

Michael Groden met Stephen James Joyce only once, in 1984, on a receiving line at a conference in Frankfurt. That was before Stephen Joyce retired from being an aid official in Africa and emerged as one of the world's most zealous defenders of the copyright protections of a literary estate.

The two men just might meet again in a U.S. courtroom some time soon. A lawsuit filed on June 16, 2006, by an American Joyce scholar alleges that Stephen, grandson of the writer James Joyce, along with estate trustee Sean Sweeney, improperly withheld access to materials and attempted to intimidate academics, among them the University of Western Ontario's Groden.

In the struggle to define copyright as it applies to literary rights, Web rights and the extent of time a work is withheld from public domain, the Joyce estate's fearsome vigilance stands out. The June 19 edition of the New Yorker magazine documented how, for two decades, Stephen Joyce has guarded his grandfather's legacy by blocking public readings; threatening legal action over the publication of biographies; announcing that he'd destroyed family letters (including correspondence from Samuel Beckett); and waging war on all perceived affronts to the Joyce family's dignity.

Reached at his home in France, Stephen Joyce simply snorted and put his wife on the line. "We do not speak to journalists," she translated. Still, he is on record as saying that he acts on principle: "Every artist's born right is to have their work ... reproduced as they want it to be reproduced."

After years of skirmishes with the Joyce estate, Joyceans have only recently decided to fight for their version of rights. Two years ago, when almost 900 of them gathered for the International James Joyce Foundation's meeting, in Dublin, to commemorate the centenary of Bloomsday (June 16, 1904, being the day on which Joyce set his masterpiece, Ulysses), the IJJF struck a fact-finding panel on the policies and tactics of the Joyce estate. Appointed were Groden; Paul Saint-Amour of Pomona College, Calif.; Robert Spoo, former editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, whose frustrations led him to become a copyright lawyer; and Carol Shloss, a Stanford University professor. (For 15 years, Shloss had investigated the influence on Joyce of his mentally unstable daughter Lucia, who was hospitalized by her brother, Stephen Joyce's father Giorgio - only to see the Joyce estate force her publisher to remove great chunks of quoted material from her book Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake.)

The panel discovered that most Joyceans feared to share their experiences lest the estate punish them. So it produced a "frequently asked questions" guide for the IJJF website reminding publishers and scholars of their rights. "When people are trying to intimidate you, they say, 'If you tell anyone about this you'll lose even more.' So scholars would be sitting beside each other having had the same experience with the estate, the same wording in the letters, even - and they wouldn't even know about it," says Groden. "That's why I went public."

Last year, in a talk to a Joyce conference at Cornell University, titled Take the Bully by the Horns, he read excerpts from intimidating letters he'd received from Stephen Joyce. ("Please be sure to say 'excerpts' - his whole letter is protected by copyright," says Groden.) One 2003 letter warned ominously: "Days of reckoning usually come when one least expects them and one of these has now come for you."

Stephen Joyce could also be tough by telephone. Once, he told Groden, "You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you'll never quote a Joyce text again." The UWO professor told of how his seven-year effort to create a digital Ulysses was suspended in 2003 after the estate demanded a seven-digit fee, and of how the estate also tried to have his University of Buffalo partners on the digital Ulysses drop him unless Groden agreed to reveal all he knew of the National Library of Ireland's 2002 purchase of a cache of hitherto unknown Joyce papers, which Groden had assessed for the library.

Groden's talk broke the spell of silence. Now the estate's attempt to extract those "unrelated and unjustified contractual concessions" from Groden concerning the National Library deal have been cited in the lawsuit filed last month by another panel member, Shloss, with panel colleague Spoo and Stanford law professors Lawrence Lessig and David Olson.

The bulk of the suit deals with Shloss's struggle to use Lucia Joyce material. Technically, its outcome will only affect U.S. scholars. Canadians can use unpublished material 50 years after an author's death while the U.S. observes a 70-year rule. (James Joyce died in 1941, 65 years ago.) However, no scholar or publisher produces books for Canada's market alone; U.S. copyright rules set the international standard. Canada's copyright law will likely be brought into harmony when it is updated this fall.

What Canada's current laws permit - and the U.S. does not - includes public performances of Joyce's last masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. But that hardly affects Joyce scholars: Canada has no trove of Joyce manuscripts, and those in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland are covered by more restrictive copyright laws. What about the Web? Ottawa copyright lawyer Howard Knopf says people should be able to post materials that are in the public domain in Canada on Canadian websites, but specifically targeting countries with more protection should be avoided. So using the Web is iffy.

Even though he is based in Canada, Groden has had to invent ways to work around the estate's restrictions. Instead of updating his 1970s work, in which he studied manuscripts to reconstruct how Joyce wrote Ulysses, he's now working on a "biography" of the book. "It has been fun to look at what was going on in James Joyce's life when he wrote Ulysses. This wouldn't have happened without Stephen James Joyce." Still, he says, it's a "tragedy" that all the squabbling has drive some young scholars away from marvels of James Joyce's writing.

Hence the importance of challenging Stephen James Joyce. "This case interests me, because due to the aggressive tactics of a literary estate, you've had copyright owners intimidating scholarship," says Stanford lawyer Olson.

Of course, some writers no doubt sympathize with the family's battle for privacy. In 1997, as chair of the Writers' Union copyright committee, Margaret Atwood wrote in a letter to then-heritage minister Sheila Copps: "A 50-year period of posthumous protection for unpublished material is far too short - certainly for my diaries and unpublished papers and very likely for yours."

As for Groden, he has no regrets about his contentious specialty: " Ulysses keeps me going. It's a wonderful book about a lonely man, isolated because he is Jewish, who struggles to find community." He thinks this is what draws Joyce scholars. "We find community with each other."

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