James Joyce’s Ulysses is fascinating in many ways, not least because it has proven such a magnet for controversy of all kinds: it has been at the center of hullabaloos about obscenity law, about textual editing, and — as Robert Spoo’s new book demonstrates — about copyright. I haven’t read Spoo’s book yet, but I want to after reading Caleb Crain’s lucid review of it.

As often is the case when I find myself thinking about Ulysses, my mind turns towards The Lord of the Rings. This is probably as odd as I suspect it is, but the books have some curious things in common: each seeks to renew and transfigure some inherited literary form; each tries to reconceive the idea of epic scope; each has been accused of being excessively masculine in its understanding of the world; each, thanks in part to endless authorial fiddling, has been the object of a great many controversies; and finally, each has been involved in all sorts of copyright issues.

Crain writes in his review,

Law isn’t the only way for people who do business together to keep one another in line. In most fields, there’s a faster, cheaper and simpler sanction: don’t do business with the miscreant anymore. Such self-policing by a group isn’t fail-safe. Ostracism might not cost enough to be a deterrent in markets with many participants, little reporting and few long-term relationships, and there will always be a few bad actors who choose to be disreputable. But law, no matter how absolute, doesn’t prevent every act of bad behavior either, and self-regulation is more flexible and quicker to adapt to changing circumstances. The phenomenon has been called “order without law,” and it has been detected in Maine lobstermen, who respect one another’s trapping sites; in chefs, who are ginger about knocking off one another’s recipes; and in stand-up comics, who usually refrain from stealing one another’s routines and punch lines. It has even been found, believe it or not, in publishing. Sometimes, in the absence of copyright, publishers have paid authors and have abstained from reprinting the books of authors they haven’t paid. Ulysses, by James Joyce, considered by some the greatest novel of the twentieth century, lost its copyright protection in America on a technicality soon after it was published. But from the 1930s to the ’90s, Joyce and his estate were paid royalties from its publication in America anyway, thanks to exactly this kind of happy anarchy.  

With The Lord of the Rings, things didn’t happen quite this way. In 1965, the bosses at Ace Books decided that they had discovered a loophole in the copyright law that allowed them to publish their own edition of the novel — and to pay J.R.R. Tolkien absolutely nothing for doing so. It seems hard to believe that as recently as fifty years ago the American publishing industry was sufficiently chaotic for any publishing executives to think they could get away with this, but they printed 150,000 copies — you heard that right: one hundred and fifty thousand copies — of each of the three volumes of LOTR, which of course sold like hotcakes. After some huffing and puffing by Tolkien and his American publishers the Ace guys decided that they had received enough legal threats, bad publicity, and cash on the barrelhead that they should probably send the author some money and let their edition slide grecelessly out of print. Still, they probably came out well ahead on the deal. “Order without law” indeed.