Samara O'Shea

My Copyright Miscalculation

Greetings ~ I know it’s been a while. I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start. Before you read this you might want to do a quick brush up on the James Joyce erotic letter situation. Everyone good? Okay. . .

Reader Stephen from Ohio asked me the other day: “Now that it’s 2012 & the copyright has expired on the letters of James Joyce, what do you plan on doing with them?” I did say that in For the Love of Letters didn’t I? I said, “Copyright on all of James Joyce’s letters letters expires in 2012.” As it turns out, I was wrong.

If you take a look at the Cornell Copyright page, you’ll see that copyright law is very confusing. When I was writing my first book, I was under the impression that the James Joyce letters were “unpublished.” Although they were technically published in a book I thought because they weren’t meant to be published, like a novel, that they counted as unpublished works. (Unpublished works once entered the public domain 40 years after the author’s death—now they enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death). That was the incorrect assumption.

A professor from Ohio State University wrote me in 2008 and pointed it out. He said:
“One small correction: these letters won’t enter the public domain in 2012. It is true that Joyce’s unpublished works enter the public domain then, but that means works that remain unpublished then. The published letters are just that – published – and they take on a copyright term of 95 years from date of publication – that is, for letters first published in the Selected Letters (are you prepared for this?) January 1, 2071.”

The painful irony is that if the James Joyce’s erotic letters had never been published then they’d be in the public domain by now. But if they had never been published we may not have known about them. Well, a terrible accident notwithstanding, I plan to be alive in 2071. Stephen Joyce will probably not make it until then.