Stuart Kelly: Internet start of new chapter for old classics

Copyright remains a thorny issue. Picture: Jane Barlow
Copyright remains a thorny issue. Picture: Jane Barlow
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COPYRIGHT issues aside, as The Waste Land app proves, it’s an exciting era for books

On 1 January this year, the works of the two most significant modern novelists, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, left copyright and entered the public domain.

It is the second time in my lifetime this has happened. Back in 1992, when I was still a student, Joyce and Woolf left copyright, since at the time, copyright extended to fifty years after the author’s death. Finnegans Wake, beforehand, was only available in the elegant dark-blue edition published by Faber and Faber; Woolf’s Orlando and Mrs Dalloway, likewise, were black-spined Grafton classics.

In 1992, other publishers leapt at the chance to publish the books without having to pay money to the estates of Joyce and Woolf, and, as an emerging bibliophile, I leapt at the chance of having the Penguin Modern Classics editions that now appeared in bookshops. Then they disappeared.

On 29 October 1993, Council Directive 93/98/EEC became law. Under this rule, the copyright laws of the United Kingdom and other members of the European Community were synchronised. While in Britain copyright was limited at 50 years, much of the rest of Europe had fixed it at 70 years. Under the harmonisation of the rules, Joyce and Woolf therefore returned to copyright status. Now that the extra twenty years have elapsed, they are once again back in the public domain. But what that actually means has changed beyond recognition.

Copyright is a complex issue. The Statute of Anne is the abbreviated name for Britain’s first copyright law – the fuller version being “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”. Passed in 1710, in the reign of Queen Anne, it granted 14 years copyright to the author (21 years if the work was already in print). What that meant was the author, not the publisher, owned the book for that time and the work could not be reproduced without the author’s permission (and financial recompense) during this period. More than any single factor, the Statute of Anne created the idea of professional authorship.

Although it represented a vast improvement from the de facto censorship and monopoly of the booksellers, it was still a limited piece of legislation. It only applied in the country where the book was published – so a flourishing trade in pirated editions sprang up from Dublin to Philadelphia. It also ruled that any work found to be blasphemous, seditious or obscene would not enjoy copyright. By the start of the 19th century, wily publishers would take popular new books (such as Byron’s Don Juan or Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam) and immediately bring an action to the Lord Chancellor that they had, to their horror, discovered that said book was blasphemous, seditious or obscene. If the Lord Chancellor agreed, he effectively granted them the right to publish the book with nary a penny going to Lord Byron or Percy Shelley.

Authors tended to be at the forefront of changes to the copyright law. Dickens was particularly active in trying to suppress American pirated editions; and the first international copyright agreement – the Berne Convention of 1886 – was initiated by Victor Hugo (who died a year before it came into force). More recently, copyright has not changed substantively between 1993 and the present day, but publishing has.

The year after Woolf and Joyce returned to copyright, the first Project Gutenberg website went live. Project Gutenberg was started by Michael Hart in 1971, running on the University of Illinois mainframe, which was part of ARPANET, the precursor to the modern internet. Its laudable intention was to make 10,000 famous and frequently consulted books available in digital format by the year 2000. Like the Statute of Anne, its aim was the encouragement of learning; and by last year it had more than 38,000 texts. This in itself was dwarfed by the growth of Google Books. By 2010, Google Books had scanned somewhere in the region of 15 million books – roughly the equivalent, by its calculations, of 10 per cent of all the books ever published.

Most of Woolf and Joyce are already freely and legally available online. But there are problems. Copyright is a territorially dependent right, and the internet pays scant regard to territorial boundaries. A confession should make the point. I was recently researching the career of David Lindsay, a Scottish writer best known for his science-fiction novel A Voyage To Arcturus. I wanted to look again at another of his books, The Haunted Woman, but couldn’t find my copy (published by Canongate). Since Lindsay died in 1945 his works are still in copyright here – but not in Australia. A quick click on to gutenberg.au and I was reading the text, albeit technically illegally.

The situation with Google Books is even more convoluted. Not all the 15 million books scanned in so far are in the public domain. Some of the books were out of print, but not out of copyright. Some were still in print and in copyright. A class action lawsuit alleging copyright infringement between the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and Google will come to trial, unless an arrangement is reached, in July of this year.

At least Google is attempting to negotiate a settlement. Although the piracy of music and images has been far more widely discussed, the piracy of books online is every bit as real. At the end of last year, while searching for an old article online, I found several download sites offering free digital versions of my first book. Part of the reason the Statute of Anne came into force was so that writers would enjoy the monetary fruits of their labour and be able to write further books. As has been pointed out before, the demand for free content leaves little room for investment in new content.

Printing reliable and attractive editions of classic works of literature is what kick-started the publishing revolution in the 18th century. Between 1778 and 1802, the number of publishers in London increased from 111 to 308. It also provided an income stream and a level of prestige to publishers in the 20th century. Nowadays, the “classics” market has migrated online to an astonishing extent, even though the digital texts are not always accurate and are certainly never objects to treasure.

That said, the availability of online texts offers huge and as yet unrealised possibilities. Joyce and Woolf are examples of how eager digital publishers might proceed, and even profit. Woolf was a writer of copious letters and diaries, and it would be interesting to align her fictional work with her parallel biographical work. Do parts of her life become transformed into parts of her work, or do phrases from the novels seep into her depiction of her self? Joyce, as almost everyone knows, is difficult. In the case of Finnegans Wake, every reader can probably find a joke or a pun or a reference in the book that has eluded a century of scholars. Wouldn’t Finnegans Wiki be the ideal way to pool resources and bring about the “encouragement of learning” for which early copyright yearned?

It’s not such an outlandish idea. The app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (out of copyright in 2036) earned back its initial investment in six weeks.

With a wealth of what scholars call “paratexts” – contemporary reviews, live readings, critical exegesis, holographs of manuscripts and so on – The Waste Land app added value, rather than stripped the poem down to mere words on a screen.

Similar projects could, with ingenuity and ambition, be achieved for Joyce and Woolf. Entering the public domain once meant a new lease of life for a book, and new technologies could make that happen again.