"Ulysses" Has No U.S. Copyright

Released: 7-Jan-1999 12:00 AM EST
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University of Tulsa Scholar Says ìUlyssesî Novel Lacks Copyright in U.S., Declares It a Public Domain Work

James Joyceís ìUlysses,î recently voted No. 1 in a list of this century's greatest English-language novels, is a public domain work that can be published in the United States by anyone without paying royalties, according to Robert Spoo, a University of Tulsa English professor who is currently earning a law degree at the Yale Law School.

ìëUlyssesí is not in copyright in the United States and, with some minor exceptions, never was,î asserts Spoo.

ìFor years now, scholars and publishers have wondered whether ëUlyssesí was ever copyrighted in the United States,î he says. ìThe stakes of this mystery recently skyrocketed when Congress passed a law increasing existing copyright terms by 20 years.î

ìItís my contention that scholars and publishers may make liberal use of it without getting permission from the Joyce estate, which no longer has a property interest in the work,î states Spoo. Still, he worries that publishers may be reluctant to embark on a new publishing venture at this point because of the possibility that the estate and Random House, the authorized American publisher of ìUlysses,î will sue.

Spoo, a Joyce scholar who edits TUís James Joyce Quarterly, makes his argument in a 35-page note in the Yale Law Journal, Vol. 108, No. 3, published in December.

He says assertions of copyright by the Joyce estate and Random House have halted or delayed recent publishing projects, including some hypermedia versions that Spoo says would be especially suitable to this novel, permitting presentation of music, songs, poetry, maps of Dublin, and a wealth of other resources for scholars and students.

ìUlysses,î marked by its stream of consciousness narrative, centers on the modernized Homeric wanderings of Leopold Bloom during one day in June 1904 in Dublin, Ireland.

Spoo says ìUlyssesî was cast into the public domain in America shortly after its publication in France in 1922. And even when Random House published an authorized ìUlyssesî in 1934 a year after the lifting of the American obscenity ban against the novel, ìit was in fact publishing a public-domain text.î

The argument by the Joyce estate and Random House for 1934 as the commencement of a ìUlyssesî copyright in the United States ìhas no basis in law,î Spoo says.

He explains that U.S. copyright law in force in 1922 required foreign-produced works in English to satisfy stringent provisions ìwhich unabashedly protected our domestic printers and book manufacturers.î

Under that law, Joyce would have had to deposit a copy of the book at the copyright office within two months of publication in France, and then, within another four months, have the book printed on American soil by a U.S. printer. Spoo says Joyce did not meet these requirements, thus relinquishing his novel to the public domain. ìIt was transformed from a private monopoly into a public resource, and the benefits once enjoyed by the creator passed to the user.î

ìHard as it was for any foreign author to comply with these protectionist demands, it was nearly impossible for Joyce, whose novel had been deemed obscene by a New York state court in 1921,î says Spoo.

He points out that in a sworn deposition in Paris in a case involving an American publisher who had printed a pirated version of ìUlyssesî in 1926, Joyce was asked if he had ever tried to secure an American copyright. Spoo said Joyce answered under oath that he had not. ìTo me, that was the smoking gun.î

ìIn the American legal system, with some small exceptions, a work that goes into the public domain does not come back; itís a river of no return,î Spoo says.

Portions of Ulysses first appeared serially between 1918 and 1920 in a New York literary magazine. Spoo notes that according to copyright office records, most of the 23 installments of the novel published during that period were never registered for copyright -- a fact that Spoo believes added to Joyceís copyright difficulties. In 1921 a New York court found the magazineís editors guilty of publishing obscenity, a ruling that stood as an obstacle to publishing the entire book in America until the decision was overturned in 1933.

ìWe need more and new editions of ëUlysses,í including a 1922 text with the misprints corrected,î says Spoo, explaining that the French typesetters had only limited facility with English and that Joyce made many changes right up to the eve of publication.

Curiously, Spoo says the novel was in copyright for two years recently. An international treaty, the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, tried to make amends for the protectionist laws of the past by restoring copyright in affected works. Thus "Ulysses," which normally would have enjoyed a copyright term of 75 years from its first publication in 1922, salvaged two years of unnoticed protection, he explains. Since the act went into effect on Jan. 1, 1996, the copyright restoration lasted until the end of 1997, expiring on Jan. 1, 1998.

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Note to editor: A copy of Spooís 35-page article can be sent to you by fax or by e-mail. He can be reached by phone at (203) 777-9254 and by e-mail at: robert.spoo@yale.edu

Contact: Rolf Olsen, The University of Tulsa, (918) 631-2653 E-mail: rolf-olsen@utulsa.edu


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