Beware the estate of James Joyce

by on March 26, 2011 at 10:29 am in Law, Science | Permalink

J. Craig Venter and his fellow scientists managed to replace the genetic code of a bacterium with a synthetic code they made on a computer. Which is how they got sued by the estate of James Joyce.

In order to distinguish their synthetic DNA from that naturally present in the bacterium, Venter’s team coded several famous quotes into their DNA, including one from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

After announcing their work, Venter explained, his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce’s estate, saying that he’d used the Irish writer’s work without permission. ”We thought it fell under fair use,” said Venter.

That is from Jessica Crispin.

James Grimmelmann March 26, 2011 at 10:35 am

You would think the Joyce estate had learned nothing from Shloss v. Joyce.

Forager March 26, 2011 at 11:08 am

What an ass. It’s people like that who really make you question parts of copyright law. Do we really want talentless scum children living their lives sucking off the teat of their parents’ hard work?

Scoop March 26, 2011 at 11:11 am

I third the notion that the issue here is the absurdity of copyright law. The correct goal is to maximize creative efforts and I think you’d get that from 25 years and no more.

sam March 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

We are losing our culture because of Mickey Mouse-copyright laws.

Dan Weber March 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Although I think copyright terms are too long, this isn’t really related to the issue. If Venter wrote “The Deathly Hallows” (those words) across one of his DNA strands, that would also be entirely fair use even though the book is less than a decade old.

Paul Drye March 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm

And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the quote has been *coded* into the genome. Since DNA is base-4 (GTCA, after all), and there’s 55 characters involved — A-Z, a-z,comma, period, and space — Ventner must have used a mapping of three base pairs of some sort arbitrarily declaring that (say) AT-AT-AT was A, AT-AT-GC was B, and so on. He can “erase” the quote by simply declaring that he’s changing the mapping.

For that matter find “prior art” in any natural string of base-pairs that’s 67 triplets long by back-forming a map for it. You yourself have literally thousands of copies of the quote in your own genes, as well as copies of “To be or not to be”, “Not with a bang, but a whimper” and “In my opinion Stephen Joyce is a litigious prick.”

Rahul March 26, 2011 at 1:20 pm

The long duration of copyrights is absurd. I can understand giving a copyright to the writer but what purpose does it serve rewarding the estates for so long. The copyright duration “creep” in the US is just mind boggling:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Copyright_term.svg

Starting from 20 years or so in the 1700′s we allot them for over a hundred years now.

The Estate of James Joyce March 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Dear Tyler:

We are now suing YOU for having repeated those lines without having paid royalties.

Regards,

The Estate of J.J.

pdf23ds March 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I am quite sure that these people have absolutely no case, even under current US copyright law. But I’m not a lawyer.

Alex F March 26, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Suppose for the sake of argument that this does not fall under fair use. Would the Joyce estate be able to receive an injunction to prevent the bacteria from replicating (ie, making additional copies of the text)? Or would the bacteria merely have to pay a fee for the privilege?

Ed Sweet March 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Maybe it’s time to get rid of copyright altogether…it’s time for someone to countersue the James Joyce Estate.

Ed Sweet March 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I hope this never happens (it would be a horrible crime, and whoever does it should go to jail for 50 or 100 years), but what if someone got real mad and spammed James Joyce’s entire body of work across the Internet (used a spam-bot and emailed it to millions), including the letters Stephen Joyce objected so much to publishing. Unlicensed copies would exist everywhere, and Stephen Joyce would die of apoplexy, since his copyrights would be forever un-enforceable.

ed the sed March 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm

No real freedom will be achieved in America, until everyone is dirt poor except for the lawyers

Tom Sydnor March 26, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Several commenters on this post seem to be experiencing some needless confusion. Five correctives may thus be useful.

First, it does not appear that the Joyce estate has actually sued Venter. It appears that the estate merely sent a testy letter. Such nastygrams are often baseless, but almost inevitably lawful.

Second, copyright is one of the few contexts in which American law uses fee-shifting as a means to deter the actual filing of weak infringement claims. Consequently, were the Joyce estate capable of asserting a copyright-infringement claim based upon A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man against Venter, it would surely fail so miserably that the estate would end up having to reimburse Venter’s attorneys’ fees.

Third, the filing of an infringement claim seems very unlikely because A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is in the public domain, or, as the idolatrous Plaintiffs in Golan v. Holder would put it, “the Public Domain.” Consequently, whatever the Joyce estate might be vaguely threatening, it probably ain’t a copyright-infringement claim. Histrionics about the evolution of copyright term thus seem misplaced.

Fourth, histrionics aside, this incident may be a good example of why American copyright laws have always taken a skeptical, minimalist approach towards the sorts of eternal “moral rights” that Europeans believe that authors’ estates should forever possess.

Fifth, the prevailing international norms requiring three-generation copyright protection, (and favoring a life-plus-70-year implementation of this principle), were developed in Europe, by Europeans, and took their present form in Brussels in 1948. Mickey Mouse may have benefited from those European norms, but he neither developed nor popularized them. Consequently, those who don’t like the prevailing international 3G norm for copyright term should blame France and Germany, not Walt.

In conclusion, the Joyce estate may not make a great poster-child for three-generation copyright protection. But neither does Paris Hilton make a great poster-child for those who oppose confiscatory estate taxation. Perhaps that is why the arguments for both 3G copyright protection and lower estate taxation rest upon the claim that most parents will work harder and generate more social surplus if they perceive that doing so will enable them to better provide for their children and grandchildren, even though third parties might perceive those same children and grandchildren to be unworthy of any extra effort.
–Tom Sydnor

Maverick April 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm

jprX2n Kudos! What a neat way of thinking about it.

Matt March 27, 2011 at 2:15 am

Portrait of an Artist is a great book in its own right, and not a warm-up to Ulysses, as is sometimes suggested.

Also, this is fair use.

Buff April 9, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Ee7ORC Very true! Makes a change to see someone spell it out like that. :)

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