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Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Andrew Morton and 25 other figures prominent in literary circles recently published an open letter in the London Times Literary Supplement calling a scholar’s recent threat to initiate legal action in defense of his copyright claim on the unpublished works of British poet John Clare “little short of scandalous.” The scholar who was the subject of the Times Literary Supplement letter is English-born University of Massachusetts history Professor Eric Robinson. On July 9, 1965, Robinson purchased from the publishing company Whitaker’s “all rights whatsoever possessed by the company in the published and unpublished works of John Clare,” the author of “I Am,” who died 136 years ago. When it so contracted with Robinson, Whitaker’s publishing company could only have possessed the rights to Clare’s unpublished works since the Clare poems that were published during the poet’s lifetime all passed into the public domain by 1877 by operation of the Copyright Act of 1842. Under that act, works enjoyed copyright protection for 42 years after publication or seven years after the author’s death, whichever was later. The copyright law currently in effect in Great Britain (and the United States) provides that both published and unpublished works are protected by a term of 75 years after the author’s death. Robinson, however, claims that since the law in Great Britain (and the United States) governing copyrights on unpublished works in 1965 provided that such rights existed in perpetuity, the copyrights he purchased in 1965 remain his unless he chooses to publish the works, in which case the works will have copyright protection for 25 years from the date of their publication. These claims had not been challenged seriously until July 1999, when Clare scholar Simon Kovesi of Glasgow University, through his publisher M&C Services, issued an edition of Clare’s love poems which, unlike Robinson’s editions of the poems, did not reproduce Clare’s misspellings or other errors — things that, some scholars claim, have limited the popular appeal of Robinson’s editions. Kovesi claimed that he did not use Robinson’s editions of the poems but directly transcribed his text from the manuscripts that are stored in the Petersborough Museum. Robinson’s solicitors, Hardbottle and Lewis, wrote M&C Services in October 1999 threatening litigation, claiming that Kovesi’s edition had breached Robinson’s copyright and that Kovesi’s printed and online remarks had defamed Robinson. M&C Services responded by requesting proof that Robinson “genuinely owned” the copyright in Clare’s poems. Even if Robinson’s copyright argument were viable in theory, questions were raised as to whether Whitaker’s, the publishing company from which Robinson purchased the copyrights to Clare’s works from Clare’s widow shortly after the poet’s death, actually owned the rights. The agreement between Joseph Whitaker and Clare’s widow was discovered in Whitaker’s offices in 1932 but was destroyed by German bombs, along with the rest of the publisher’s archives, in 1940. Joseph Whitaker did not produce his planned edition of Clare’s works and at his death in 1895 relinquished “ownership” of the material to the Petersborough Museum and Northampton Library. Editions of Clare’s poems published between 1865 and 1965 did not acknowledge a general copyright holder. There reportedly has been no response from either Robinson or his attorneys since M&C Services’ request for proof of Robinson’s ownership of the copyrights to Clare’s unpublished works. Robinson has declined all requests for interviews. Having received no answer from Robinson in response to his request for proof of copyright, Kovesi has said that he is preparing a second unauthorized edition of Clare’s poems — the Flower Poems — for publication in October. “I will continue to publish Clare in accessible and easily available editions, and I would urge others to do the same. I think the copyright claim has damaged Clare studies, and it is now time it was laid to rest,” Kovesi said. Re-energized by summer Clare conferences and festivals, the controversy over the issue culminated with the literary figures’ letter in the Times Literary Supplement, which ran on July 14. In addition to calling Robinson’s actions “scandalous,” the letter urged “all sympathetic colleagues in the literary and academic world to support the stand that Dr. Kovesi has taken and resist the suppression of competing editions.” Indeed, Robinson’s solicitors have defended their client’s copyright claims vigorously. In 1970, they forced an unauthorized selection of Clare poems by Raymond and Merryn Williams to be withdrawn from publication. Scholars have claimed that other Clare editions and studies also were aborted by Robinson’s warnings of copyright infringement litigation. When contacted about the Clare situation by The Intellectual Property Strategist, Robert Clarida of New York’s Cowan, Liebowitz & Latma PC, said, “It’s sort of perverse that someone would use copyright to keep works out of circulation and thus deprive the public of the author’s contributions; that’s certainly contrary to the philosophic rationale of U.S. copyright law.” Robinson finally responded in the Sept. 1 London Times Literary Supplement, disputing that he had repressed editions, stating, “I have assisted many British and American scholars, young and old, with my experience and time, and I intend to carry on in the same way in the future. But I will continue to avail myself of the protection, such as it is, that the copyright law affords me.” The son of a laborer in Northamptonshire, England, Clare wrote exclusively from a rustic perspective. Born in 1793, he was a contemporary of William Wordsworth, John Keats and Percy Blythe Shelley, and exchanged books with Sir Walter Scott. From 1841 until his death in 1864, he was confined in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He wrote more than 3,500 poems, of which only 300 were published in his lifetime. Since so much of his work remains unpublished, except for a few poems such as “I Am” that often appear in poetry anthologies, Clare is relatively unknown outside of the academic community. John T. Aquino is an attorney, author of fiction and nonfiction, and editor-in-chief of the Intellectual Property Strategist and the Internet Newsletter.

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