Literary estates are imposing restrictive copyrights that amount to censorship, says a new generation of academics. Chris Bunting reports
The faint voice on a crackling transatlantic telephone line sounded tired: "I am too old for this. I am 79 and I have suffered considerably from these attacks. I have been accused of being a thoughtless, self-interested capitalist only interested in making profit from a writer long dead."
Eric Robinson was once known as a man who helped to rediscover the poetry of John Clare, the shamefully neglected contemporary of Keats, Byron and Shelley. He had rooted around in provincial libraries for decades, revealing poetry, by a relatively uneducated peasant, of a luminescence and power equal to any in the Romantic pantheon.
But Robinson is now widely known for one thing: an affinity with copyright lawyers. Simon Kovesi, a 32-year-old lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, is the man responsible. Four years ago, just out of his PhD, Kovesi took the seemingly unremarkable step of publishing a book of Clare's poems. In "Clare studies", this was revolutionary. For 38 years, Robinson, who had found a long-forgotten Clare copyright and bought it from its holder for £1 in 1964, had exercised exclusive rights to most of Clare's works.
It had allowed him a final say in who could and could not publish Clare's works, as well as a right to profit from the books. Critics say he exercised the rights aggressively. Kovesi, whose book was "unauthorised" and was published in Bangkok, received threatening letters from Robinson's lawyers. The old professor, on the other hand, began to suffer a very public dismantling of his reputation for his willingness to suppress another academic's work.
Robinson's is not the only case of highly personalised attacks on an academic daring to exercise intellectual property law. Norman Sherry, the biographer of Graham Greene, has been publicly assailed by Greene's estate for insisting on his right to exclusive access to letters apparently signed over to him by Greene on his deathbed.
It all makes excellent fare for those peculiarly polite dinner parties that are the broadsheet and academic press's equivalents of a tabloid feeding frenzy. Vicious letters bat back and forth in the columns of The THES , The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement . Yet for all the hot air such disputes attract, little thought is spared for the underlying issue behind them: the concept of intellectual property itself.
Patrick Parrinder, professor of English at the University of Reading, is critical of the media and academia's failure to engage. "These issues define the world in which we work, but I think people think it is unsexy, dry material," he says.
This was not always the case. In the 19th century, copyright was a burning issue. Thomas Babington Macaulay, in a parliamentary speech that thwarted the extension of copyright to 60 years after a writer's death, defined the terms of the debate. While some copyright might be necessary to ensure writers a living, he said, copyright was a monopoly and "the effect of monopoly generally is to make articles scarce, to make them dear, and to make them bad".
Yet in 1996, the European Union extended posthumous copyright in the UK from 50 to 70 years after huge lobbying efforts by corporate interests but barely a murmur of public debate. The US has since fallen in line, with a law presented to Congress as "uncontroversial" and "bipartisan".
The consequences of such changes will almost certainly be to reduce access to classic writers. A study by Warwick Gould, director of London University's Institute of English Studies, of sales of W. B. Yeats' poetry between 1990 and 1996, when it was not covered by copyright, gives a glimpse of the effects. Before 1990, when the original Yeats copyright ran out, bookshops were selling about 7,000 paperback collections of Yeats' poetry a year. By 1994, in a deregulated market, they were selling nearly 70,000.
The negative effects of copyright are not limited to the popular market. According to Parrinder, it was no coincidence that new editions of D. H. Lawrence's novels appeared half a century after his death and a new edition of Ulysses arrived 43 years after James Joyce's. He believes the incentive for literary estates and their publishers to fund revised versions of literary works increases dramatically immediately before the expiry of copyright. "Before that, there is little or no competition from other editions and thus no incentive to improve the product," he says.
Copyright restrictions also tend to reduce the variety of books on offer. One of Kovesi's main arguments with Robinson's regime has been the preponderance of "textually primitive" editions reflecting the copyright holder's bias towards passive editing that keeps alterations of Clare's original writing to a minimum. Kovesi argues that more active editing, adding punctuation where it would make meanings clearer, would be appropriate for editions aimed at younger readers.
Parrinder adds: "Many scholars now are interested in looking at how a text was received by its audience. They would therefore want a reproduction of the original publication. Somebody else might want one of the writer's originals. The preference now is not for one authoritative text but for multivalent texts, and thatI does not fit with many estates' ways of handling things."
The extension of copyright law has coincided with greater activism among many literary estates, which in some cases appear to see their role as guardians of literary "brands" rather than as executors of a will.
Suman Gupta, lecturer in literature at the Open University, claims that the estates of Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Joyce and J. R. R Tolkien have all followed relatively aggressive agendas, sometimes blocking legitimate research and sometimes banning interpretations they considered undesirable. "When the Beckett estate banned Deborah Warner's production of Footfalls in 1995, and when it tried to ban Joy Zinoman's production of Waiting for Godot in 1998 for legitimately inserting a racial dimension; and when it refused permission to present a complete version of Waiting for Godot , the estate was responsible for entirely unjustifiable but legally sanctioned censorship," he says.
Parrinder admits to some fatalism about the rolling-back of the public domain: "In another 20 years, I expect the copyright limit to be pushed further. It is possible that authors from the mid-20th century will never go out of copyright." He reasons that the book trade is only a small player in the push for the extension of intellectual property rights. Billions of pounds of profits from the music industry's stakes in artists such as the Beatles are tied up in the debate, and the corporations involved exercise huge lobbying power.
Meanwhile, increasingly strident criticism of the concept of intellectual property is being heard from young academics. Gupta, for instance, argues that "there is a deep contradiction in legal provision that allows the descendants of dead authors to steal the livelihood of living writers, researchers and performers" who want to interpret a copyright work and argues that academics who collaborate with restrictive estates help to corrupt the research environment.
"Scholarly work depends on the assumption that all perspectives should be developed as far as possible with full view of the relevant supporting material - only then can the relative merits of different perspectives be assessed. To impede the development of any perspective by withholding access to such material is a form of censorship," he says.
Gupta argues for a form of public-private ownership for all dead authors'
writing: "An author's descendants can be allowed to profit by, say, selling papers but should not be able to monitor access to these."
Kovesi extends his critique to any concept of copyright in the intellectual sphere. "There are academics who guard their little areas like little kids with a packed lunch, worried about getting their banana stolen. But, in the end, it comes down to your view of academic life. Should academics guard ideas and sources like landowners? For me, I don't own the ideas that I come up with. They are the product of interaction with others and they get their value from that interaction."
The Clare copyright dispute has led Kovesi to reassess his relationship, as an academic, to his subject and his own claims to copyright over his work.
"What rights do we as editors have to own or restrict access to anyone's original work? Literary criticism and editing is always a secondary profession. We should always be humble before the art that we promote and... we should resist our tendencies to be editorially imperious, to be selfish, protective and monopolising about the art that we do not make ourselves, but from which we gain vicarious careers."
Do editors have the right to own or restrict access to anyone's original work? Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom