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Controversy continues to swirl around the legal status of the National Library of Ireland’s Joyce papers. Following the announced publication of an edition earlier this month by Danis Rose, the NLI quickly made their collection available as downloadable image files freely available to the public. In a letter to The Irish Times published on 12 April Mr. Rose protested this action, writing that his prior act of publication entitled him “in Irish law [to] an ‘economic right’ equivalent to copyright for a term of 25 years.” He then goes on to argue that the Library “is in continuing infringement of my copyright,” a phrase that seems to imply impending litigation of the matter.
I am not in a position to judge Mr. Rose’s legal claims, but I do regret the idea that the arrival of Joyce’s unpublished works into the public domain in Europe will be marked by the same kind of worrisome policing of rights and permissions that have for many decades now inhibited the publication of textual scholarship on Joyce. Thus I also find troubling the warning that appears when one attempts to access the NLI images: “We also remind you that the National Library of Ireland owns these materials and makes them available for the purposes of research and private study only. Any other use is strictly prohibited without prior written permission from the National Library of Ireland.” There is not a direct assertion of copyright here, but it does appear that the NLI (perhaps inadvertently) is imposing the same kind of prior restraint on publication and quotation that has long troubled Joyce scholarship.
As the dispute between Rose and the NLI unfolds, I continue to hope that Joyce’s unpublished works will remain freely accessible in the EU and be available to critics, teachers, and scholars who want to use them to advance our understanding of the twentieth century’s greatest literary masterpiece. Doing so requires that we be able to publish transcriptions, quote the materials, and freely contest their meaning. Rose’s threat of legal action, however, as well as the NLI’s stringent notice suggest that our celebration of the arrival of Joyce’s unpublished works into the public domain in the EU might have been sadly premature.
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