With Expiration of ‘Ulysses’ Copyright, Bloomsday Celebrations Bloom

BY Mike Melia  June 15, 2012 at 12:06 PM EDT

James Joyce at Hodges Figgis; photo by nerosunero

Portraits of James Joyce hang in Hodges Figgis’ bookshop window in Dublin last week ahead of Bloomsday. Founded in 1768, Hodges Figgis is mentioned in Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Photo by nerosunero.

For readers in the United States, the story of “Ulysses” began in the pages of The Little Review. In 1918, the small literary journal started running James Joyce’s novel one chapter at a time until 1920, when the magazine was seized and the editors arrested and fined $50 each for publishing obscene material. It would be one of many legal challenges for the difficult, but now widely revered book.

'Ulysses'Joyce’s “Ulysses” follows the lives of two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, over the course of one day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On Saturday, Joyce fans around the globe will commemorate “Bloomsday,” a holiday that celebrates “Ulysses.” This year is special, however, as it marks the first occasion that the copyright has expired on Joyce’s work.

Many events in Dublin and elsewhere can finally put on performances and readings of entire sections of the novel without fear of legal recourse by the Joyce estate. In New York will be the debut of a film, “In Bed with Ulysses,” by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, which includes staged readings from the book, as well as a look at the inspiration and origins for the novel. The end of the copyright will also offer scholars the chance to use any material from Joyce’s published works as they see fit and opens a new era for the writer’s words to be used around the world.

“People who have waited many years to be able to have a free hand and to be able to use those works completely, be able to publish new additions, be able to maybe do online versions or some sort of adapted versions of those works, those things are now possible,” said Robert Spoo, a copyright lawyer and Joyce scholar at the University of Tulsa. “They were not so possible in the past, because the James Joyce Estate has been rather restrictive with permissions. Many scholars and other users have been denied permission, and the end of copyright means that permissions can’t be denied for at least those works any longer.”

There remain questions about the use of Joyce’s personal papers, letters and notes, because the copyright only applies to his published works.

“In Dublin, I know that there will be very intense debate of the copyright questions, because the published texts are free to be quoted from without restriction. Scholarship of course, will want to work with the entire body of material that exists. Therefore the libraries holding the main amount of those materials will need to define how they on their own part handle the publication and dissemination of those documents as images, which today is possible, and of the texts in those documents that are in their possession,” said Hans Walter Gabler, a Joyce scholar who edited a version of “Ulysses” in 1984. “These are questions that will come up, because it is indeed the transformative quality of scholarly work that will then essentially define how free scholarship will be within the next few decades.”

Said Spoo: “Steven James Joyce, who is the grandson of James Joyce and the sole direct descendent, decided to take a much more, as I think he would have put it, aggressive role with respect to protecting James Joyce’s writings and also his unpublished letters and writings, and at that point [in the late 1980s] became more and more vigilant, and also for Joyce scholars, much more intimidating. Refusals were very frequent, angry and aggressive, and people actually became frightened. They became despairing, almost at times of being able to use these works to the point that into the 1990s and the early 2000s many scholars simply gave up hope of any kind of large project beyond something like minimal fair use of quotation, because the estate had become such a difficult thing to deal with.”

James JoyceThe legal challenges to “Ulysses” in the United States did not end with The Little Review. After the first complete edition of the book was published in Paris in 1922, there was reluctance on the part of U.S. publishers to even try to bring the book to market for fear that it would be deemed obscene.

Finally, Bennett Cerf of Random House, with the legal counsel of the then-famous copyright attorney, Morris Ernst, came up with a clever way to challenge the obscenity ruling without having to first front the money to publish the novel. They brought in a copy of the book from Paris and made sure it was seized by customs. They then challenged the seizure, which allowed them to argue that the book was not obscene and should be allowed in the United States.

The case came before a federal judge in New York by the name of John Woolsey. He spent months reading “Ulysses,” consulting friends. He concluded that the book was not obscene, but a legitimate work of art.

“He wrote a wonderful opinion, which is probably one of the most famous judicial opinions ever to have been written in the United States,” Spoo said. “Certainly it’s one that more people have read than probably any other that you can immediately think of, saying that ‘Ulysses’ was complicated, it was tragic, it was challenging, it used words that were considered to be dirty words, it was even nauseating he said in some ways, but it was not obscene under the law.”

Cerf and Random House actually included Woolsey’s decision in the U.S. edition of “Ulysses” starting in 1934 and continued to publish it along with the novel for decades after.

In those decades, “Ulysses” has established its position as one of the great masterpieces of modern literature, yet it remains a difficult work to read.

“As Joyce was working out his ideas, his actual text, he kept changing, he kept enlarging, he kept building in more and more material, he built in material toward the end of the book that in a sense has expository function, but it comes at the end of the book, which in itself stimulates you to go back and read what these late recollections of Bloom mean in the context of what you read, say a could of weeks earlier,” Gabler said.

“One of the many remarkable things is indeed that it seems that he had an extraordinary visual and literal recall of Dublin, of his own memories, of the stories he remembered or that his father told him of all sorts of relationships and consolations in Dublin, of streets, of houses, of smells in pubs, and what have you,” Gabler said. “It’s amazing how searching through Google or Thom’s Directory of Dublin or public records or indeed the newspapers [of the time] that have meanwhile gone onto the web, how researching through all such stuff reveals much more of the accuracy of Joyce’s reference to Dublin’s reality than we’d been able to take in before.”