Copyright madness

June 12, 2008

As the editor of Irish Writing in the 20th Century: A Reader and someone mentioned in Alistair McCleery's feature ("Dead hands keep a closed book", 5 June), let me add a brief comment.

Like James Joyce's Ulysses, my book was dragged through the courts, but whatever edition of Ulysses you buy you will never see one with 23 pages excised and a page stitched in carrying a single sentence like some graffiti on a newly painted white wall: "Pages 323-346 have been removed due to a dispute in relation to copyright."

The case was high profile, more so in Ireland than in the UK. It was also personally damaging. I was in New York in September 2000 with the only copy of the book then in the US when my editor rang to say that under no circumstances could I show anyone the book since a worldwide injunction had been imposed in the High Court in Dublin.

For an academic, it was the worst of times. Footnotes and head notes alone had taken me a year to research, and with 10,000 copies in a publisher's warehouse there was little prospect they would be pulped and a new edition set. Fortunately, the book did get published on World Book Day in March 2001 and has been well received in spite of its difficult birth.

I never got to appear in court, but if I had I would have suggested that the forum was inappropriate for settling such a dispute. The fee requested by the Joyce estate for The Dead was raised from £7,000 to £7,500 because we had queried the amount. Subsequently, because I was tardy in my reply - I was away from home at the International Joyce Symposium at Goldsmiths, University of London, and I then went on to lecture at the Joyce Summer School in Trieste - permission was refused altogether. It was at that stage that I deleted The Dead from the edition and advised the publisher to run the book without Joyce. My publisher concluded that we could use extracts from Danis Rose's edition of Ulysses, then available in the bookshops.

As I look at the book today, I cannot believe anyone will think justice has been served. In considering the differences between the 1922 and the Rose edition, does it matter greatly that "catholic", "christian" or "jew" are in lower case in the 1922 version or that someone sat "crosslegged" or "cross-legged"? Could that ever justify vandalising a book and reducing a university press to near-penury?

What about all the other cases of books and editions that were never published in the years since European harmonisation and the extension of copyright to 70 years?

McCleery is right to insist on academics and publishers tackling copyright owners when they are unreasonable. The move on the part of the Irish Government in 2004 to protect its leading writer shows what can be done when we have states and governments on our side.

In my new book, Reading Joyce, I'm more philosophical, but I had in mind my Cork reader and a whole slew of books that have been silently dropped: "It's not only in what he has to say but also in the legacy he has bequeathed us that Joyce remains our contemporary. In turn, for those involved in his recuperation and his continuing reception therefore, the struggle to spread the word of Joyce has a certain heroic quality that will be best appreciated perhaps by those who come after us."

David Pierce, York.

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