Pictured above: law professor Robert Spoo. courtesy Public Radio Tulsa

Copyright: creative savior or stifler?

Using examples from history, TU professor Robert Spoo spoke on the significance of copyright law.

On Friday afternoon, Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law Robert Spoo gave a presentation titled, “Copyright, Patronage, and Courtesy in Modern Literature.” This presentation was based on information from his latest book, “Modernism and the Law,” which was published in August. Professor Spoo teaches copyright law among other courses at the University of Tulsa. He received his PhD from Princeton and his JD from Yale. He has also been named Tulsa Copyright Lawyer of the year in both 2014 and 2018.

I enjoyed his presentation because, as a writer, I feel like it is important to know about copyright law and how it affects me and has affected writers in the past. In addition, I appreciated the printouts of the slides he provided for his audience to help them follow along and remember what he said.

Spoo’s presentation focused on three main ideas: copyright, patronage and courtesy. He explained how these three areas of copyright law were pivotal to the development and spread of modernist texts in the 20th century. His presentation was limited to copyright law only in Britain and the United States.

First, Spoo defined copyright as a scarecrow, because it discourages free riders from taking author’s ideas. He discussed the first copyright law was the Statute of Anne in 1710 in England. This Statute allowed authors to request copyrights from the government for their works. This was the first time the government had moved to protect the intellectual rights of authors. However, it was very limited protection, as the copyright lasted no longer than 28 years. The United States passed a similar copyright law after it became a country.

Spoo then discussed patronage. Before copyright law, authors were indebted to patrons who gave them money to live and create. The passing of copyright laws allowed authors to rely more on publishing houses and the sales of their books than patrons. It was still difficult to make a living as an author based on book sales because of lax copyright laws, so in the 19th century, many famous modernist authors relied on patrons, most notably, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Spoo made a point that with patronage comes the debate of if the author’s creativity is limited by the desires of the patron. On the flip side, does complying with strict copyright laws inhibit artists’ creativity as well?

Finally, Spoo discussed Trade Courtesy in regards to copyright law. He said because of the way U.S. copyright law is structured and its relationship to obscenity laws, it was very difficult for foreign authors to get copyrights in the U.S. This created a problem where U.S. publishers legally published foreign author’s works without permission. Spoo mentioned that many publishers saw how this was hurting authors and began to use courtesy. They made agreements with foreign authors and publishers and paid them royalties to publish their books.

Spoo ended his presentation by talking about how the United States finally updated their copyright laws in 1998, and today, a foreign author’s work is protected by copyright. However, because of the many intricacies of the law, over the 20th century, many famous modernists’ works were not copyrighted in the U.S. and created a problem with dissemination of their work. For example, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” did not have copyright protection for much of the 20th century in the United States because it did not comply with obscenity laws. Because of this, American publishers illegally published his work without giving Joyce the credit and royalties he deserved. “Ulysses” is a groundbreaking text, and Joyce’s creativity and brilliance would have been stifled if he had tried to comply with the obscenity laws just to have copyright protection in America.

Using Joyce and other modernist authors as examples, Spoo concluded with the thought, “Does more copyright law allow for more creativity of less?”

graphic by Conner Maggio

Post Author: Lizzy Young