For lovers and scholars of the 20th-century novel, Stephen Joyce has become something of a literary villain. The grandson and sole living heir of James Joyce, the Irish author and poet, has spent the past 17 years fiercely guarding his family’s estate through a series of court battles with those brave enough to try to use copyrighted Joyce documents.
Stephen’s notoriously acerbic dealings are held up by many who question the role of intellectual property law in literary estate management. Many legal jurisdictions grant automatic copyright on artistic works to their creators for 70 years after death. Fans often accuse estate heirs of abusing that right to hoard wealth and hamper access to classic literature.
But for many heirs, inheriting a family copyright has little to do with secrecy or greed. It is the chance to reinvent old works for new countries, demographics and media, to explore philanthropy and, above all, perpetuate a legacy.
So how do you feel about the above? I’m of mixed mind here. Fourteen-year terms, which some want, are too short; Bono-ized terms, too long. And as for the heirs’ feelings toward their legacies, I suspect they vary all over the place. Some heirs may truly cherish the literary works. Others may see masterpieces in an unsentimental, pecuniary way—as nothing more than property to be exploited to the hilt: just variants of family stores or apartment buildings.
One interesting issue is the extent to which the heirs inherit something along with the literary estates: talent. Do long copyright terms help subsidize the creation of literature? I’m skeptical. But you never know. Also, If the line between genius and madness is thin, what about the heirs who inherit only the latter? Better that some money be around to help them live with those parts of their legacies?