Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain

Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain

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by Robert Spoo

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The names of James Joyce and Ezra Pound ring out in the annals of literary modernism, but few recognize the name of Samuel Roth. A brash, business-savvy entrepreneur, Roth made a name—and a profit—for himself as the founding editor and owner of magazines that published selections from foreign writings—especially the risqué parts—without


The names of James Joyce and Ezra Pound ring out in the annals of literary modernism, but few recognize the name of Samuel Roth. A brash, business-savvy entrepreneur, Roth made a name—and a profit—for himself as the founding editor and owner of magazines that published selections from foreign writings—especially the risqué parts—without permission. When he reprinted segments of James Joyce's epochal novel Ulysses, the author took him to court.

Without Copyrights tells the story of how the clashes between authors, publishers, and literary "pirates" influenced both American copyright law and literature itself. From its inception in 1790, American copyright law offered no or less-than-perfect protection for works published abroad—to the fury of Charles Dickens, among others, who sometimes received no money from vast sales in the United States. American publishers avoided ruinous competition with each other through "courtesy of the trade," a code of etiquette that gave informal, exclusive rights to the first house to announce plans to issue an uncopyrighted foreign work. The climate of trade courtesy, lawful piracy, and the burdensome rules of American copyright law profoundly affected transatlantic writers in the twentieth century. Drawing on previously unknown legal archives, Robert Spoo recounts efforts by James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Bennett Cerf—the founder of Random House—and others to crush piracy, reform U.S. copyright law, and define the public domain.

Featuring a colorful cast of characters made up of frustrated authors, anxious publishers, and willful pirates, Spoo provides an engaging history of the American public domain, a commons shaped by custom as much as by law, and of piracy's complex role in the culture of creativity.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Spoo (Chapman Distinguished Chair, Univ of Tulsa; Copyright and Joyce) introduces prominent figures on both sides of the creation and dissemination of modernist literature (e.g., James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Samuel Roth, Henry Holt, and Bennett Cerf) and details their emerging influence in the development of U.S. copyright law. The author explores the use of the term pirate and its application in intellectual property discussions. Spoo's multidisciplinary approach draws successful comparisons between an anarchist publishing climate and industries as unusual as lobster fishing to describe the birth of copyright law. This work joins Paul K. Saint-Amour's book of essays, Modernism and Copyright, while offering more of an objective stance and in-depth analysis. VERDICT Spoo draws from an extensive bibliography and list of primary source documents to present a riveting account of U.S. copyright law's "Wild West" origins. Highly recommended for students of literature and those studying copyright legislation.—Nerissa Kuebrich, Chicago
From the Publisher
"Readers who think they know Ulysses, even those who imagine themselves to be fairly well versed in the legal wrangling that surrounded the book before World War Two...should turn immediately to Robert Spoo's outstanding Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain. The story Spoo tells about Ulysses, modernism, and twentieth-century publishing is nothing short of gripping." —Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History

"This is a major study of forces that shaped literary modernism, and a book that few people apart from Robert Spoo could have written. ... [Spoo's] long involvement with Joyce's work makes this study especially valuable, and it is worth noting that he probably has given us as accurate and evenhanded an account of Joyce's case against Roth as we are ever likely to see." —English Literature in Transition, 1880 - 1920

"...[A] meticulously researched and compellingly argued study of the American public domain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.... Comingling discourses of the law, economics, protectionism and piracy as they were articulated and altered over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Without Copyrights offers a truly interdisciplinary, socio-legal account of the disseminative conditions under which Anglophone modernism flourished." —Literature & History

"Spoo commands a comprehensive understanding of both copyright law and the delicate structure of informal courtesies— not laws—that for decades governed the publication of books written overseas yet read and often printed in the United States." —Common Knowledge

"[D]oes a masterful job of exploring the intersection between European and American publishing, economics, and copyright law in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.... Spoo's book is a must for anyone interested in the history of copyright law or the publishing industry. His clear writing style makes the book accessible to every audience. Summing Up: Highly recommended." — J. D. Graveline, CHOICE

"A riveting account of U.S. copyright law's 'Wild West' origins. Highly recommended." —Library Journal (starred review)

"No work better puts copyright in its place. This beautiful book is essential reading for the remaking copyright will need." —Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It

"The many pitfalls and paradoxes of copyright are the subject of Robert Spoo's Without Copyrights, a wonderfully detailed study of how transatlantic modernism was shaped by laws surrounding the production and distribution of texts. What emerges is a revolutionary account of the ways that copyright and obscenity laws determined if, when and where modernist works could travel." —London Times Literary Supplement

"[A] remarkable tale.... Careful and definitive." —Caleb Crain, The Nation

"Fascinating." —Publishers Weekly

"This book is beautifully written. It is authoritative in its coverage of the advent of modernism in the United States, the workings of the publishing trade, and the development of copyright law.... An exemplary account of an important period." —American Historical Review

"A quite fascinating exploration.... Makes for interesting and quite good reading. From its perfect opening anecdote—James Joyce responding to a Society of Authors complaint about an unauthorized performance of a Shaw play—to its focus on the fascinating story of Ulysses, it's full of entertaining titbits, and includes a variety of complex characters.... Without Copyrights would seem essential reading for anyone dealing with copyright, but it is certainly also of interest to those with only a more casual interest in the law, the times, the authors, and these works." —Complete Review

"The public domain is the battleground for some of the fiercest and most consequential struggles in the entire world of intellectual property. By delving into its unexpectedly rich history, Robert Spoo's revelatory book shows why. As we strive for policies, laws, and norms to preserve the public domain and facilitate its creative potential, we need books like this to remind us of how high the stakes really are." —Adrian Johns, author of Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

"Spoo is a great scholar of both copyright law and literature. He is also a gifted storyteller. This book takes readers on a splendid journey through publishing houses, courtrooms, and legislatures, illuminating the path of American copyright law." —Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, author of Information and Exclusion

"Robert Spoo's magisterial survey of the legal conditions that both frustrated and enabled the emergence of modernism is many books in one: a previously unwritten chapter in the making of our literature; a unique insight into the complicated dance between intellectual property and cultural production; a subtle exploration of the freighted concept of literary 'piracy;' and—ultimately—a compelling plea for the recognition of a universal public domain. Spoo's deep research and narrative grace make Without Copyrights a deeply satisfying reading experience: the story boasts colorful characters, unexpected incident, and surprising measures of both humor and pathos-and it is told in a voice that is as lively and unexpected as the episodes it recounts." —Peter Jaszi, coauthor of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright

"A true expert illuminates what is often obscured: how isolationist US laws conditioned the reception of modern writing. The much maligned pirates and their world come alive in this elegant and just book. Spoo's clearheaded unravelling of some arcane technicalities is a delight. A liberating addition to Joyce studies." —Justice Adrian Hardiman, MRIA, Supreme Court of Ireland

"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." —Popmatters

"[A] deeply researched case study of the complicated American copyright situation surrounding the great literary landmark of the 20th century, James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses." —Los Angeles Review of Books

"Spoo's book brings to the reader the written, personal correspondences between James Joyce, Ezra Pound and attorney John Quinn in which they debate copyright, censorship and trade regulation. Spoo's book is full of modernist gossip and addictive particulars of early versions of great books.... Spoo's book demonstrates that a robust public domain establishes rich cultural landscapes despite complaints about piracy and pilfering." —The Tulsa Law Review

"Robert Spoo's book is essential reading for scholars of James Joyce and for anyone interested in the mutually constitutive relationship of literature and law. Spoo provides assiduous research with raconteur acumen and molds it into a stirring argument backed by his sophisticated understanding of legal theory and literary history." —James Joyce Broadsheet

"For someone with my interests who is used to reading dry and seldom sprightly legal prose, this book presented a welcome change of pace. Not only is it free of jargon, but there are numerous striking turns of phrase that make for a pleasant journey through its pages."
—Journal of Scholarly Publishing

"The legal, historical, and philosophical framework of Without Copyrights will satisfy both legal and historian audiences, and the flowing narrative and use of memorable cases will reward any curious reader." —College and Research Libraries

"A fascinating legal-historical study of the American public domain in the nineteenth and early twentieth century...with care, flare, and brilliance, Without Copyrights substantially reduces our ignorance of that history." — James Joyce Quarterly

"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...With nuance and clarity, [Spoo] 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" — Critical Inquiry

"Robert Spoo's Without Copyrights lucidly unpacks the evolving story of modernism's engagement with copyright and piracy in the American public domain, relying on decades of literary and legal erudition, practice, and pedagogy. Delivered in the fresh and exciting prose of a scholar emerging triumphantly from the archives, Spoo offers a perspective that alters our perceptions of modernist authorship and production, asking us to rethink copyright in the present day, and fundamentally reframing some of modernism's canonical heroes." — Journal of Modern Literature

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Modernist Literature and Culture Series
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Robert Spoo is Chapman Distinguished Chair at the University of Tulsa College of Law. He has published extensively on the intersection of copyright law and literature. He is the recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship.

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Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The concepts of literary piracy, public domain, trade courtesy, and international copyright have been difficult for American historians and general readers to understand. The involvement of people such as Ezra Pound, D H Lawrence, Samuel Roth, James Joyce, and Morris Ernst with these concepts is equally complex. And so is the importance of such concepts to publishing corporations and to governmental institutions. Dr Spoo has made these concepts, and the people and organizations involved with them, brilliantly clear. It takes a world-class scholar of law and of literature to do so. He has uncovered facts about topics no one could expect anyone to clear up: did Ezra Pound actually file a deposition regarding unauthorized printings of _Ulysses_? Did the US Customs ever request the Justice Department to specify whether a book was obscene? What was interim copyright regarding American publication of a work first issued abroad and why did Joyce not take advantage of it. In what way were the copyright difficulties of _Ulysses_ and Southern and Hoffenberg's _Candy_ similar? Why was trade courtesy between British and American publishers a key to their stature as "gatekeepers of culture"? These are not abstruse questions, although they and their elucidation might be in the hands of a lesser writer, a writer less understanding of their importance in American business and literary history.