BBC News

Battle over copyright to James Joyce's works

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

image captionThe Irish author James Joyce died in 1941

It was assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that from the start of this year many of the copyright problems associated with the works of James Joyce would end.

From 1 January, Joyce's writings published during his lifetime - Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake - have been available for publication and quotation without reference or payment to the James Joyce estate.

However, this week the National Library of Ireland brought forward plans to publish a major collection of manuscripts, written in Joyce's own hand, free on the web after a controversial Joycean scholar published the material in editions priced at up to 250 euros.

The library's move comes in response to the publication by Danis Rose of all the manuscripts, in editions priced between 75 euros and 250 euros, after he claimed he is now the copyright holder in the European Union of these manuscripts.

Mr Rose is basing his claim to copyright on the assertion that he is the first person to publish these manuscripts in the EU.

Pre-emptive strike

A press release advertising his work says: "In the EU there is a provision in law that the first to publish previously unpublished material entering the public domain acquires economic rights equivalent to copyright for a period of twenty five (25) years".

The press release adds that he took the inititiative to "pre-empt" Joyce's materials being denied to scholars and possibly the National Library itself.

But the National Library in turn seems set to attempt to pre-empt Mr Rose.

Its director, Fiona Ross, said that "plans to put the manuscripts online had been under way for some time".

The collection includes notes and early drafts of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Two of the notebooks include the earliest surviving sets of notes, and there are drafts of nine separate episodes of Ulysses.

The handwriting in the manuscripts matches Joyce's known handwriting from the different periods in his life and includes his use of coloured crayon lines and "Xs" through certain writing.

It was originally intended that this would be announced and presented next June, but after Mr Rose's action and some other developments it was decided to proceed now.

It is still, however, unclear who now owns the copyright to the manuscripts.

'Substantial fee'

The press release advertising Danis Rose's work implies that he holds these rights in trust for scholars, librarians and artists.

But others believe that if his claim to be the copyright holder is correct, the National Library and Joyce scholars would need his permission to publish any substantial portion of these manuscripts and could also be obliged to pay a substantial fee to Mr Rose.

Mr Rose is quoted in the Irish Times newspaper as describing the decision by the National Library to place the manuscripts online as "unwise" and "precipitate in the extreme".

But the National Library's director, Fiona Ross, says the whole issue of copyright - not just in Joyce studies - is being examined by a copyright review committee set up by the Irish Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation.

A report from the committee in early February is believed to have provided the library with greater confidence as to its position.

It is reported that the committee is likely to recommend that the legislation be altered to remove ambiguities in the current law and to facilitate the approach the National Library has now taken.

The manuscripts in question were acquired by the National Library in 2002 for 12.6m euros but copyright in them remained with the James Joyce estate until the end of last year, when copyright protection, 70 years on from the death of the author, ended.

However, there remained some doubt about the status of these unpublished manuscripts.

So, it seems the long-running saga of James Joyce's writings and copyright problems may not yet be over.