When it comes to interpreting a ponderously worded brief, Robert Spoo doesn’t flinch. The 49-year-old copyright lawyer, an associate at Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin in San Francisco, is a former University of Tulsa English professor and a James Joyce scholar. Spoo has written extensively on the Irish modernist author, who is famous for his near impenetrable novels. But it was at the James Joyce Quarterly, which Spoo edited for 11 years, that he discovered that Joyce’s prose wasn’t nearly as difficult to unravel as the copyright issues surrounding his work. These days, as the pro bono general counsel for the 39-year-old International James Joyce Foundation, Spoo guides other scholars through the thicket.
Joyce’s grandson Stephen James Joyce, who is unaffiliated with the foundation, manages the author’s literary estate and is notorious for keeping a stranglehold on the rights to Joyce’s work. As an editor at the Quarterly, Spoo routinely had to grapple with fair use issues. Every time a writer’s essay cited Joyce’s unpublished letters or included long excerpts from his novels, Spoo had to decide what he could publish without infringing on the estate’s copyrights.
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