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Boyd Tonkin: James Joyce has escaped from the copyright jail. Too many others still rot there

The Week In Books

If you have ever hankered to climb the mist-shrouded peak of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, there has never been a wider choice of routes. Since his work came out of copyright at the beginning of 2012, 70 years after his death, Wordsworth Classics has issued a budget version of the Irish master's most intricate, inscrutable – and astonishing – book. Oxford World's Classics has a paperback due soon. For truly committed Joyceans, this month marks the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the Restored Finnegans Wake. It incorporates decades of painstaking textual revisions by Joyce experts Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon.

At last, Rose and his fellow-scholars have escaped the curse of the Joyce estate. In the shape of grandson Stephen Joyce, it had systematically guarded access to the texts and policed the study of them. To Lewis Hyde in Common as Air, his stimulating exploration of the crisis in copyright (Union Books), Joyce junior joins other over-zealous heirs – such as Martin Luther King's son, Dexter Scott King - as oppressive enclosers of our cultural commons. If you wish to quote in public Dr King's "I have a dream" speech, take note that it is a trademarked property – and check your bank account. As for Finnegan and Ulysses, Hyde concludes severely that Stephen "managed to hobble a generation of interest and discussion of his grandfather's work".

For the most part, Hyde presents a libertarian case against the abuse of copyrights and in favour a more flexible regime to suit an era of digital communication – although he does insist that "authors and publishers deserve to profit from the work they create". I remain fairly suspicious of the anti-copyright movement. So often it seems to serve the interests of hi-tech corporations in their drive to hammer the revenues of writers and other creative types into the ground.

I can't help but notice too that Hyde, along with most philosophical champions of low-cost, open-access publishing, holds a tenured academic position. They will never know the problems, or the pride, of earning one's living as a freelance artist or creator of any kind. Still, Hyde rightly denounces some atrocious manipulations of the copyright and patent systems – over drugs to manage HIV infection, for instance. He forcefully argues that in the online age we will inevitably have to ride out a revolution in the legal framework for creativity: "we are redesigning this ship as we sail it".

Back to Joyce and co: on this terrain, Hyde's case looks to me impregnable. In the EU, since 1993 and the Copyright Duration Directive, the length of authors' copyrights has been fixed as life plus 70 years: an absurdly protracted stretch. As Hyde points out, the first British copyright law in 1710 only offered protection for a maxium period of 28 years (an initial term of 14, with a renewal). Since then, copyright – which Hyde shows began as a species of licensed monopoly - has swollen into "a limit that has lost its limit". Now it looks "senselessly long". Hence the heirs of a healthy 25-year-old debut novelist who publishes today could in theory exert complete control over most uses of the work until around 2150.

This is a (bad) joke at the expense of readers, students and literature itself. Yet our copyright privileges now fuel a huge posthumous trade in permissions. Super-agents manage the dead as zealously as the quick. Andrew Wylie, for instance, runs the estates of authors from Evelyn Waugh to Kingsley Amis, Vladimir Nabokov to Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver to JL Borges. I can see the justice of a writer's partners and children reaping the benefit from genius in the family. But their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? Believe that and you believe in literature as land, to be fenced off in perpetuity with guard dogs, "keep out" signs and swingeing punishments for every trespasser.

So how long should copyright last? Hyde recalls that Samuel Johnson, who was right about so much, "thought that the author's life plus 30 years would be reasonable". With every rule and custom in the "intellectual property" domain now under digital-era scrutiny, Sam's proposal should be aired again.

Date: 28 AprilSubject: unerotic emails in fiction

One definition of a hopeless saddo might be someone who reads an erotic novel and comments on the typography. But EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey – currently shifting more than 60,000 copies per week – does exhibit a peculiarity more bizarre than the relationship between masterful Christian and meek Anastasia. It is, for long stretches, an epistolary novel. This being the 21st century, the couple's electronic missives come with full email furniture. Which means that a typical quotation consists of something like: "Date: May 31 2011 06:52 EST". Titillating, no? More than a decade ago, novelists began to mimic email protocols to show how up-to-date they were. That era is long past. Time to axe the computer settings and get on with the show.

Bavaria tries to defang Mein Kampf

The EU's prolongation of post-mortem copyright has led to some weird anomalies. After all, copyright protection applies to all authors – even to Adolf Hitler. The Führer died, of course, in April 1945. Rights in his crazed apologia Mein Kampf reside with the state of Bavaria. He wrote it in jail at Landsberg after the farcical Munich beer-hall putsch of 1923. Several English-language editions have surfaced in recent decades, always with a row about what to do with the tainted proceeds. Jewish charities, offered them, have declined. In Germany, though, Bavaria has always forbidden any new publication to forestall its use by neo-Nazi groups. But now the state has decided to authorise the first postwar German edition. Looking at the expiry of their copyright in Mein Kampf at the end of 2015, they feared both commercial and political exploitation when it moved into the public domain. So this official version will seek to detoxify the book, putting Hitler's rant in a context that – according to Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder – will show clearly the "catastrophic consequences" of this "absurd" work.