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Meredith McGill reviews Without Copyrights

Robert Spoo. Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 355 pp.

Review by Meredith L. McGill

The most important term in the title of Robert Spoo’s book is the last one. Spoo’s study decisively moves beyond the romance of piracy and the moral outrage of copyright advocacy to show how British and American modernist literature was centrally shaped by the United States’ robust (and aggressively defended) public domain. The story he tells is a complex and sinuous one. The set of informal norms (“trade courtesy”) that regulated the unauthorized—but legal—republication of foreign works ought to have been superseded by late nineteenth-century changes to copyright law. But protectionist legislation that required foreign works to be manufactured in the United States in order to secure copyright and a tradition of strict interpretation of the formal requirements of the statutes made it difficult for authors and publishers to comply with the law. Spoo deftly shows how publishers continued to use extralegal means to stake out and defend property rights despite the signing of an international copyright agreement in 1891. With nuance and clarity, he fills in the considerable middle ground between legitimate and pirate publishing, detailing the complex intertwinement of law and practice in a world that will feel alien to twenty first-century readers: one in which foreign works were presumptively part of the public domain unless strict compliance with copyright law could be proven. And yet this was also a world in which many unprotected works were nonetheless treated as if they were private property, protected not by state sanctions but by publishers’ honor, the prestige of fair dealing, and reciprocal arrangements between authors and publishers.

Many of the peculiarities of early twentieth-century literary publishing suddenly make sense when they are seen as attempts to “[design] around the American public domain” (p. 94). Authors published excerpts of longer works in magazines, believing (incorrectly) that copyrighting parts might protect rights in the whole. They added prefaces to American editions or multiplied textual variants in order establish grounds for claiming rights in a new work. Ezra Pound engaged in sometimes comical attempts to circumvent the requirement that editions be published in the United States within the relatively tight time frame laid out in the 1909 statute. Spoo teases out the strands of Pound’s elaborate proposal for revising existing law, showing how his seemingly conservative stipulation that perpetual copyright automatically vest with authors is undercut by his recommendation that copyrights also carry with them compulsory licenses should an author’s heirs raise prices or let a work go out of print. Spoo calls attention to the radicalism of Pound’s combination of property with liability law; his definition of copyright as a self-limiting property right recalls the price-control provisions of colonial legislation and prefigures the turn to licensing as a supplement to copyright in digital publishing.

If Pound is the eccentric theorist who exposes the incompatibility of stronger protection of authors’ rights and the public interest, James Joyce is Spoo’s central example of an avant-garde author whose experiments with the limits of propriety cause him to be tripped up by conflicting provisions of copyright and obscenity law. Joyce is both victim and villain in Spoo’s account. Indeed, Spoo retains a good deal of sympathy for Joyce’s nemesis, American pirate publisher Samuel Roth, a peddler of middlebrow erotica who sought cultural legitimacy in serializing Ulysses, only to be vilified and ruined financially by Joyce’s campaign against him. Spoo devotes three chapters to Joyce’s entanglements with the American legal system, detailing his oblique attempt to combat reprinting through a defense of publicity rights to the circulation of his name and his legal strategies for protecting the authorized edition of Ulysses against copying after the customs ban was removed in 1933. But it is Spoo’s account of Joyce’s resort to extralegal means of protection that is most striking here. For Spoo, copyright law cannot be understood as separate from publishing practices. Joyce emerges as an aggrieved author who skillfully wields trade courtesy not to regulate an unruly market but to solidify the position of the author “as the cynosure of the literary economy” (p. 191).

Spoo’s book offers a welcome antidote to author-centered histories that fail to grasp the importance of illicit circulation to the cachet of modernist works. I hope there’s a pirate edition of Spoo’s book circulating somewhere on the internet.