On the Relationship Between the Scribe and the Scoundrel

Robert Spoo's Without Copyrights takes you through the winding and dimly-lit alleyways of professional courtesies and the narrow passageways of intellectual property.

With banter about art and ideas wanting to be free and copyright outlaws becoming Internet heroes, the history of copyright is perhaps a more fertile subject than ever. Historian Robert Spoo tells one part of that story, with distinctions sometimes so fine that they might be lost on the head of a pin, using three Modernist giants—James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Samuel Roth—as his major examples.

Spoo is not just a brilliant historian but a writer whose prose is lucid and inspired, the kind of writer whose sentences you have to marvel at as often as you marvel at his keen intellect. Both are important in equal measure in telling this story, which takes us through the winding and dimly-lit alleyways of professional courtesies and the narrow passageways of intellectual property.

In the early pages of Without Copyrights, as Spoo outlines the next 200-plus pages, he notes that, in the words of another writer, creativity is “messy”. Writers don’t simply create because there’s financial incentive, though financial incentive can be a motivating factor. And copyright does often reward that vision of the creator, though Spoo is quick to remind the reader how incomplete that image is.

Modernist writers were motivated by money but they were also motivated to construct elements of a new culture, to imbue their audience with a sense of awe and to challenge its members to create and/or appreciate works that often obliterated the status quo. (And as these men sought to challenge the establishment, they would soon find themselves embedded in the establishment.) Although Ezra Pound eschewed piracy he embraced the distribution of his works; he would publicly denounce the actions of Samuel Roth, the publisher, while privately admiring his abilities and in many ways benefiting from the man’s tactics.

The relationship between the scribe and the scoundrel is not new today nor was it new in the early hours of Modernism. Spoo backtracks to 1790 to explain the complexities of this relationship, discussing the contemporary concerns over digital piracy, the fears shared by creators of the past who saw large portions of their works lifted for other sources, causing one judge to argue that a plagiarist could not excuse himself by defending his actions by saying that there were other portions he didn’t plagiarize.

Foreign works were especially difficult and controversial properties; American publishers would announce themselves as the first to issue a new work and by doing so had claim on it. This courtesy of the trade saw a great number of works disseminated among the American reading public in an era when European writers were greater in number and greater in quality than American ones. Spoo cites the imbalance between British and American authors published in the 1880s, noting that “of the fifty-four numbers of Harper & Brothers’ Franklin Square Library published in 1886, only one was by an American author.” Fiction dominated and the dominance can in part be explained by this: works in areas such as “law, science, and theology” were, by and large, protected under American copyright law.

Of course, this system was cheap for publishers but worrying for writers: if it cost nothing to publish a book, what incentive would the publisher have for developing the talents of a new writer? Imagine, for instance, that film companies could import a high volume of pictures at little or no cost. How long would Hollywood survive with that kind of competition? What incentive would filmmakers, actors, writers and others in the industry have for creating new works? (The Internet model of “pay as you like” benefits fans who can essentially take recordings for free and while it benefits musicians in the sense that their music ostensibly reaches a wider audience the lack of money flowing back to the pocket of the creator will invariably have some impact on his future output.)

Although practices evolved, it would be writers from abroad who seemed to have the greatest impact on copyright and its laws. Spoo examines the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In 1921 the New York Court of Special Sessions charged the editors of The Little Review guilty of obscenity for publishing excerpts from Joyce’s now classic novel. (Pound had been responsible for the appearance of those chapters in the journal.) This led to Joyce publishing an unexpurgated version in France, though it cost him royalties in the United States.

Roth’s motivations for publishing further excerpts may have been monetary and may have been aesthetic when he sought permission to bring them out. Though his intentions were uncharacteristically gentlemanly, his behavior and relationship with Pound quickly changed, resulting in a great feud. The words exchanged were harsh to say the least, and in the end Joyce engaged in a public campaign meant to damage Roth’s reputation. Arguably, the feud afforded Joyce a larger degree of celebrity and created a greater shroud of mystery around what is perhaps his most difficult novel.

Although Spoo doesn’t sensationalize these events, his ability to chronicle them and present the three players as well-rounded and intriguing characters (beyond their obvious historical and literary appeal) is further testament to his skills as a writer and further reason to explore this volume. We see Joyce not just as a literary genius, but as a man who had motivations that extended beyond the practice of his art and beyond his desires for fair commerce. Pound is Pound, a man whose name is synonymous with madness and inspiration, and Roth is that man caught somewhere in between—are we to admire him for his curatorial skills or despise him for his practices?

Despite the richness of those characters and the humor of their battle, this is a work of a serious scholarship and Spoo paints a somewhat frightening picture of what the current state of our public domain is. He writes that today “we have an uncoordinated global commons” that is “one of kind of dystopia”, a world, he adds, of “checkerboard monopolies, patchwork freedoms, and after-rights, all presided over by the amorphous, often untested promise of fair use.”

The complications that arise from the current picture are not answered in these pages (though the reader will easily draw conclusions on what direction Spoo thinks would be most beneficial). Instead, the author allows us room to ponder these questions and arrive at our own answers as grim—and familiar—as they may be.

RATING 8 / 10
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