Saturday, March 26, 2011

Does the DNA in a Bacterium Infringe the Copyright in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"?

That wonderfully oddball question was posed to me yesterday by author Mike Mullin.  (See his entertaining tweets here.)

I admit that initially I didn't have the foggiest idea what Mike was talking about.  But when I read the link in his tweet it all became clear.

It seems that, in May 2010, the American biologist Craig Venter synthesized the genome of a microbe and implanted a snippet of its DNA into a DNA-free cell of another species.  As Carl Zimmer exclaimed in awe in a blog post on Discover magazine's website:
And that…that thing…can grow and divide. It’s hard to say whether this is “life from scratch,” because the boundary between such a thing and ordinary life (and non-life) is actually blurry . . . 
Here, from The Guardian, is a more detailed discussion of the extraordinary and controversial science -- arguably the first synthetic life form. And here is Venter himself talking about the breakthrough.  But for our purposes, the funky thing is that, as Zimmer reported in a later post, Ventner's synthetic cell:
carries a line from James Joyce, inscribed in its DNA: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” . . . The scientists who produced the new synthetic cell copied the genome of a microbe, letter for letter, and then inserted the synthetic version into a host cell. To determine that their experiment worked, they needed a way to tell the genomes of their synthetic cells from the natural genomes that were their model. So they inserted “watermarks” into the artificial genome. These sequences of DNA (which spelled out the work of Joyce and others through the genetic code) sit in non-coding regions of the microbe’s DNA.
(Emphasis added.) What happened next, sounds like a satire of the James Joyce Estate's legendarily overzealous copyright policing.  As David Ewalt reported in his blog on, at a conference in Texas just last week:
Venter explained his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce’s estate, saying that he’d used the Irish writer’s work without permission. ”We thought it fell under fair use,” said Venter.
In other words, the Joyce Estate evidently contended that a sequence of DNA in a bacterium infringed the copyright in Portrait of the Artist.  In his tweet, Mike Mullin asked -- doubtless tongue in cheek -- for an opinion on the viability of the Estate's copyright claim.  Here, Mike, is how the analysis might go, if one were to take this claim at all seriously:

The first question is whether Portrait of the Artist is copyright-protected at all.  Joyce's novel was first published in 1916.  It is therefore in the public domain in the United States, as are all works first published in 1922 or before.  (See this earlier post on copyright duration.)  Thus, as long as the literary bacterium was bioengineered in America and not distributed abroad, it would not be an infringing microbe.  Indeed, you can read the entirety of the book on the Project Gutenberg site. (It is, to say the least, quite wonderful.)  But keep in mind that the United Kingdom and the European Union calculate the duration of copyright in older works differently.  Copyright there (at least for works first published during an author's lifetime) endures for seventy years after the death of the author.  Since Joyce died in 1941, Portrait of the Artist is copyright-protected in those jurisdictions until January 1, 2012.  So if the creation and replication of the microbe took place in the UK in 2010, the Estate at least has a copyrighted work on which to base its claim.

By the way, this webpage maintained by Ohio State University and The International James Joyce Foundation tells you everything you could possibly want to know about the duration of Joyce's copyrights in various countries throughout the world.  Among the contributors to page are Robert Spoo and Carol Loeb Shloss.  I will come back to Spoo and Shloss in a minute.

I do not know where Venter's bacterium was created, but he is an American and his Institute is based in Maryland and California.  So odds are the copying occurred in a jurisdiction where Portrait of the Artist is in the public domain.  Don't sweat this, Dr. Venter.

But what if the new life form had been born in London?  There would still be a long line of hoops that the Estate would have to jump through to prove copyright infringement.  We will take it as a given that the microbe does in some sense "copy" a small portion of Joyce's novel, even though the copying cannot be seen by looking at the microbe under a microscope, but only in the print-out produced by the laboratory equipment that analyzes its genetic sequencing.  I am no authority on "fair dealing" -- the British equivalent of "fair use" (I leave any UK analysis to Emily Goodhand @CopyrightGirl) -- but under U.S. law, any claim of copyright infringement would, of course, be patently ridiculous.  The 14-word phrase from Joyce is so short that it would likely qualify as de mimimis copying -- i.e., too insignificant even to bother with applying the fair use analysis.  If the fair use factors under Section 107 of the Copyright Act were examined, Venter should surely win on at least three of the four.  In particular, a court would almost certainly find that Venter's use of Joyce's words was highly "transformative," which strongly favors a finding of fair use.  The "amount and substantiality of the portion used [by Venter] in relation to the copyrighted work" is trivial, to say the least. The effect of Venter's use on the market for Portrait of the Artist is non-existent.  Point, game, match -- Venter.

By the way, from what I read, as the bacteria replicate, the Joyce "quote" is gradually becoming more and more garbled, as mutation alters the gene sequencing.

But there is a serious point lurking here.  This is by no means the first time that the Joyce Estate has aggressively rattled its copyright sabres.  See this long and  fascinating New Yorker article.  And see  this summary by Kim Dian Gainer, which describes the "forced the excision of material from Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora Joyce," the blocking of a "performance based upon a short story by Joyce that, ironically, was itself based upon a folk tale,"  the blocking of "live readings of Ulysses on the internet," and, in 2004, the threat of legal action to "derail[] exhibits and readings intended to be a part of the ReJoyce Dublin 2004 festival."

Most famously, the Estate objected to Carol Shloss's plans to quote from certain letters and other materials in her biography of Joyce's daughter, Lucia.  In response, Shloss filed a landmark declaratory judgment and "copyright misuse" lawsuit, in which she argued, among other things, that the Estate misused its copyrights in an effort to influence scholarly treatment of Joyce's works and life.  Robert Spoo was one of the attorneys who represented her.  (I told you I would return to Shloss and Spoo.) Ultimately, Shloss obtained a highly favorable settlement, and the Estate ended up paying $240,000 in attorneys' fees to Shloss and her counsel.

Based upon the letter accusing Venter of creating an infringing bacterium, the Estate does not appear to have been chastened by the outcome of the Shloss case.

Postscript: Following up on the Joyce/Venter controversy, New Yorker blogger Jeannie Venasco located several other accounts of literary quotations that have been encoded into DNA (evidently without attracting cease and desist letters).  She summarizes her research in this amusing post.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oops, I Poisoned My Readers: Can I Be Liable for Publishing Mistaken Information?

Suppose you are the author of a book about harvesting edible mushrooms. Suppose further that mushroom enthusiasts who purchased your book became seriously ill when they gathered and ate fungi that you mistakenly described as safe. Could you be sued by your poisoned readers?  Would they be able to recover damages from you and your publisher for their culinary nightmare?

The answer to the first question is, of course, yes:  Generally speaking, anyone can be sued for anything in this great country of ours, no matter how lacking-in-merit the case might be.  (Of course, if the case is truly frivolous, the courts may, in some instances, have the power to impose sanctions on the plaintiff or his attorney.)

The answer to the second question is not entirely clear, although the law is better for publishers (and perhaps also for authors) than one might guess.

There was, in fact, a case involving an encyclopedia of mushrooms.  Some readers, relying on misinformation in the book, did collect and eat poisonous mushrooms, becoming so ill that they required liver transplants.  Ultimately, in this important decision, the Ninth Circuit found that the publisher had no liability to its readers for the nearly-deadly information.  Essentially, the court concluded that imposing liability on the publisher would open the door to the prospect of unlimited liability that could severely threaten the free flow of information.  Here is how the court explained its reasoning:
Although there is always some appeal to the involuntary spreading of costs of injuries in any area, the costs in any comprehensive cost/benefit analysis would be quite different were strict liability concepts applied to words and ideas. We place a high priority on the unfettered exchange of ideas. We accept the risk that words and ideas have wings we cannot clip and which carry them we know not where. The threat of liability without fault (financial responsibility for our words and ideas in the absence of fault or a special undertaking or responsibility) could seriously inhibit those who wish to share thoughts and theories. As a New York court commented, with the specter of strict liability, "[w]ould any author wish to be exposed ... for writing on a topic which might result in physical injury? e.g. How to cut trees; How to keep bees?" . . .  One might add: "Would anyone undertake to guide by ideas expressed in words either a discrete group, a nation, or humanity in general?"
Similarly, the courts have found that a publisher was not liable for an injury to a student who was injured while performing a science experiment, following allegedly mistaken directions in a textbook.  Decision here.  Dow Jones had no liability to readers for publishing mistaken financial information.  Decision here.   A victim of sexual abuse could not recover from a publisher that allegedly misrepresented the qualifications of an attorney that she hired.  Decision here.  Planned Parenthood was not liable for the "wrongful conception" of a child based upon allegedly mistaken information in a contraception pamphlet.  Decision here.  See also this case in which a publisher was found not to be responsible for the death of a reader arising out of the publication of allegedly hazardous information in a diet book.  And then there is this famous (to media lawyers) and bizarre case in which Hustler was found not to be responsible for the death of a teenager who allegedly imitated an autoerotic practice described in an article in the magazine.  Decision here.

Many caveats are in order.  

First, in a number of cases of this kind, the defendant was a publisher and not an individual author.  Sometimes the publisher successfully invoked the argument that it could not be expected to fact check every instruction in every book it published.  That same argument would not ordinarily be available to the author of an accused book.  Accordingly, the author might face a greater legal risk than her publisher.  See, for example, this case for personal injuries arising out of allegedly mistaken information concerning the making of tools, in which the claims against the publisher were dismissed, but the claims against the author went forward.  See also Jones v. J.B. Lippincott, in which the court distinguished between the responsibility of the author and publisher of a textbook, which contained allegedly mistaken information that caused injury to a nursing student.  The Lippincott court said: 
Author liability for errors in the content of books, designs, or drawings is not firmly defined and will depend on the nature of the publication, on the intended audience, on causation in fact, and on the foreseeability of damage.
Note, however, that the mushroom encyclopedia case, above, quotes with seeming approval language from an earlier case about protecting authors from unlimited liability, even though only the publisher seems to have been a defendant when the Ninth Circuit issued its decision.  Moreover, in some of the financial information cases, the publisher also appears to have been the author of the "defective" information.

Second, some of the cases suggest that liability could be imposed if the publisher or author knew that the mistaken information was false, but went ahead and published it anyway.

Third, the courts have said that a different rule might apply in a circumstance where there was a special relationship between the writer or publisher and the reader that gives rise to a duty to speak with care.  An example might be where you specifically contract to prepare a research report for a specific individual or company and it turns out that mistaken information in the report causes injury.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, no responsible author wants to cause injury to a reader, and there is no discounting the fact that publishing seriously mistaken information has a host of other detrimental consequences, ranging from damage to an author's reputation, to the cost of defending a lawsuit, even if the lawsuit is ultimately dismissed.

There is, in short, every reason for a writer to do his utmost to get his facts straight, to communicate instructions clearly, and to give ample warnings of the risks involved in a described procedure.  That said, if the worst does happen, the law gives publishers -- and perhaps also writers -- some meaningful protections against open-ended liability to readers.

Postscript:  Here are discussions of two recent cases in which readers have sought to impose liability on publishers and/or authors for perceived wrongs other than personal injury:  the putative class action suit alleging that Jimmy Carter's book was falsely marketed as an accurate account of peace negotiations in the Middle East; and the case against James Fry and his publisher for allegedly misrepresenting a work of fiction as a memoir.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Dead as Characters in Fiction: Shoeless Joe, J.D. Salinger, and J.R.R. Tolkien

On January 25 of this year, lawyers for the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien sent a cease and desist letter to author Steve Hillard claiming that his novel Mirkwood violates the Estate's right of publicity in Tolkien's persona because (among other reasons) Hillard depicts Tolkien as a character in his book. The Estate cited Texas and Kentucky as examples of jurisdictions with statutes that extend the right of publicity to the dead.  Hillard responded by filing a preemptive lawsuit in federal court in Austin, Texas, seeking a declaration that his novel does not violate the Estate's rights.  Hillard's filing cites several good examples of recent novels by well-regarded writers that made prominent use of dead celebrities as characters, including Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, featuring Marilyn Monroe as a character, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, featuring Virginia Woolf, and Underworld by Don DeLillo, featuring Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover, among others.  Early articles concerning the Mirkwood dispute appear herehere, and here.

I gather that the Estate may have other gripes about the allegedly "Tolkien-like" cover and the appearance of Tolkien's name in the subhead "A Novel About JRR Tolkien."  But it's not my purpose here to express a view on the merits of this particular lawsuit.  Instead, I'd like to voice my disaffection for the entire concept of a post-mortem right of publicity.

Briefly stated, the right of publicity prohibits the use of an individual's name or likeness (and, in some places, other elements of one's persona, such as one's voice, signature, etc.) in advertising or for "purposes of trade."  ( offers a good background discussion on the right; this good online whitepaper from the Kenyon & Kenyon law firm discusses the right in certain non-U.S. jurisdictions.)

There has been a lot of debate over the years about what falls within the ambit of "purposes of trade."  And there have been a fair number of lawsuits contending that "purposes of trade" include depicting an individual, without his consent (or the consent of his heirs), in a work of fiction, such as a novel or movie.  After all (the plaintiffs argue), the writer or producer is expecting to make money from the fictional work.  On the other hand, thankfully, many right of publicity statutes and court decisions explicitly recognize that there is a strong countervailing First Amendment interest in not curtailing all use of individuals' names in expressive works.

There has been a spate of recent right of publicity cases involving the use of real people in fictional works. (See this article from the American Bar Association summarizing recent developments.)  When brought on behalf of living individuals, most cases, like this one involving the television series CSI recently dismissed by an appeals court in California, tend to be yoked with a claim for libel, on the theory that not only does the plaintiff have a property right in his persona, but he has been falsely and disparagingly portrayed in the fictional work. (This raises the separate but related question of libel in fiction, which is the subject of this earlier post.)  However, when libel is not a factor, i.e., when the only claim is one based upon the right of publicity, in most cases -- but unfortunately not all -- the fiction writers have prevailed.  Still, there is no denying that this can be an unpredictable area of the law, as illustrated by the Tony Twist case.

But what about a right of publicity for the dead?  Remember, you can't libel the dead in the United States.  I, for one, see no compelling social benefit in bestowing a new property right on the heirs of dead celebrities, particularly when it is has too often been mischievously used by the living in an effort to suppress creative works, which are (and should be) entitled to robust protection under the First Amendment.  And yet approximately 19 states now recognize a post-mortem right of publicity.  (The laws, I might add, are entirely inconsistent with each other; some according protection for as few as 10 years after death, while Indiana and Oklahoma purport to extend protection for the astonishing term of 100 years!)

Back in the 1980s, I read the great baseball novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  The title character is the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was, of course, one of the greatest hitters of all time and the most famous member of the Chicago White Sox team (or the Black Sox, as they have come to be called) that fixed the 1919 World Series.  The book also features a central character by the name of J.D. Salinger.

If you haven't read the book, you may know the story from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, which is closely based on Kinsella's novel.  When I saw the movie, I was immediately struck by the fact that J.D. Salinger had vanished from the story and had been replaced by a totally fictional character named Terrence Mann.  I had a work-related reason to learn more about the reason for this dramatic change in the dramatis personae.  So I called around and finally managed to locate W.P. Kinsella, who was living at the time in White Rock, British Columbia, writing more novels.  (I must say he was uncommonly cordial and gracious to a young lawyer calling him completely out of the blue.)  I asked him:  "What happened to J.D. Salinger?"  He told me that the lawyers had said that Salinger, who in 1989 was still very much alive, had to be cut out of the movie version of Shoeless Joe.  The lawyers were worried that Salinger (who had recently pursued a highly publicized lawsuit to block publication of an unauthorized biography that quoted from his unpublished letters) might try to block the release of the movie as a violation of his right of publicity.  The lawyers decided they couldn't take that chance.

(By the way, as far as I know, Salinger and his lawyers never threatened legal action in connection with Field of Dreams; the Hollywood lawyers simply feared he might.  I could be wrong about that.  If anyone knows for sure, please post a comment or send me a message.)

In 1989, New York State Legislature was considering a bill that would have extended the "right of publicity" to the dead.  If the law had passed, the heirs of dead celebrities could sue if their illustrious ancestors' names were used in advertising for "purposes of trade," just as living celebrities could sue under New York law -- then and now.  I was asked to participate in a panel discussion with one of the sponsors of the New York legislation.  And the reason I had tracked down W.P. Kinsella was to support one of the points I wanted to make:
Shoeless Joe Jackson died in 1961.  If New York enacts a statute recognizing a descendible right for publicity for up to a half century after death, I'm afraid that lawyers will be telling the W.P. Kinsellas of this world that not only do you have to cut J.D. Salinger out of Shoeless Joe, but you have to cut Shoeless Joe out of Shoeless Joe.
Well, New York didn't enact a post-mortem right of publicity statute in 1989.  But the legislators are still trying, and a similar bill was introduced for legislative consideration in 2010 and now has now been introduced again in 2011. At the same time, there is a movement afoot to enact a federal right of publicity statute that would include post-mortem  protection.

This is an active, controversial, and (by the low standard of lawyers) interesting area of the law, and my opinion as to the imprudence of a descendible right of publicity may be in the minority is, of course, just that -- one person's opinion.  The fact of the matter is that a post-mortem right of publicity is the law in many states.  Writers should be aware that (as long as they don't falsely imply that their works are authorized or endorsed by the heirs of a dead celebrity) they have a strong argument that the depiction of the dead in works of fiction is protected by the First Amendment. Again, think of Oates, DeLillo, Cunningham -- and Kinsella.  The statutes and the case law generally attempt to distinguish between conventionally commercial uses of a celebrity's name and likeness (such as use of images on tee-shirts) and more expressive, transformative uses (such as, one hopes, use in novels and films).  But the scope of the post-mortem right of publicity is none-too-clear, and celebrities' estates may be well-funded, aggressive, and lawyered-up. It's a grey area, and it may make sense to seek out legal advice before launching on a major project. Like Steve Hillard, you could conceivably end up with a fight on your hands.  If you do, it would be cheerful to have the support of an established publishing house.

Hilliard doesn't.  He self-published his novel.  About 900 copies had been sold prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

Postscript:  The right of publicity is not the only arrow in the quiver of those who would seek to prevent the use of real people, living or dead, as characters in fictional works.  Here, from lawyer Mark Litwak, is a good summary of the various legal theories that have been invoked, with greater or lesser success.  See also this summary from UK attorney David Crocker comparing UK and US law on the descendible right of publicity.  Finally, you might be interested in this account from The Hollywood Reporter of a federal judge recently holding the Washington State right of publicity statute unconstitutional in part.

Update:  Writer Diana Stevan's comment reminded me that I should have mentioned the lawsuit recently filed against Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.  The plaintiff is a sixty year-old woman, who once worked as a maid for one of Stockett's relatives; she claims that she was used as the model for one of the principal characters in the book.  As is typical of such cases involving living plaintiffs, the complaint alleges a hodgepodge of legal theories, including violation of the right of publicity, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Here is an article by Laura Miller of Salon about the case. A copy of the complaint is here on the Jackson Jambalaya blog. And here is a good discussion Susan Cushman and lawyer John Mason on Jane Friedman's Writer's Digest blog.

See Diana's fine blog at