DUBLIN — This weekend I am traveling to a dual celebration, of a great Irish writer and of copyright freedom. For June 16 is Bloomsday, the day in 1904 captured through the eyes of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce in his epic novel Ulysses. Each year in Dublin fans of Joyce gather to celebrate the work in a day of public readings conducted at locations across the city that are featured in the book.

2012 is a special year for these Joyceans. The 71st since Joyce’s death, it marks the first — across the EU at any rate — that his work may be shared freely among them, without needing permission — for public readings, performances, or re-interpretations — from his estate. This is no small matter: since inheriting the estate in 1982, Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce has gained a reputation as the most controlling literary executor in history. 

Copyright’s recent history is exclusively one of concessions granted to copyright holders — who are increasingly multinational corporations such as TimeWarner and EMI and wealthy estates — either extensions in the scope of copyright’s protection or the length of its term, or streamlined mechanisms for its enforcement. 

The public are the losers in these deals,  yet they have rarely been moved to join the chorus of academics and archivists and their persistent protest that we are moving ever further from the view of copyright established by the framers of the Constitution: a necessary, temporary, evil to promote the health of a knowledge base that is ultimately shared. Indeed, our journey towards a corporate vision of perpetual knowledge assets exploited for profit seems unstoppable.

And yet the public has its moments. One such was in January 2012, when a tide of public opinion swept away the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, proposed measures that threatened the integrity of the internet’s most basic architecture. Washington insiders, accustomed to the drumbeat of commercial interest dictating the pace inside the Beltway, have barely recovered since. Bloomsday 2012 may be another such moment.

In 2004 the threat of disruption from the Joyce estate to the planned Bloomsday centenary was deemed so great – Stephen Joyce warned he would sue for copyright infringement if public readings formed any part of the festival – that the Irish government was forced to pass emergency legislation to protect itself. In 2007, a US court upheld the claim of a Stanford academic that the Joyce estate engaged in abusive conduct in exploiting its copyright.

This year, Dublin’s New Theatre have organized an entire festival dedicated to Joyce’s entry into the public domain, featuring new work only made possible by the expiry of the Joyce copyrights. Scholars from around the world – including a few former targets of legal action from the estate – will gather at Trinity College Dublin for a week-long symposium on the author. Experimental film, cabaret, even an iPhone app, all form part of the city’s program of festivities.

But Stephen Joyce may not be history just yet. The copyright status of many of Joyce’s works in the United States remains a matter of dispute. This includes Ulysses, which some scholars claim is already in the public domain, but which the estate maintains will remain in copyright here until 2030. On the minds of a few in Dublin this weekend will be the fact that legislators could also reinstate the Joyce copyright at any time. 2012 is not the first year Joyce entered the public domain in Ireland; that happened twenty years ago, only for the European Union to retroactively extend so-called authorial copyright from 50 years after the author’s death to 70.  The extension handed control of Ulysses back to the estate, causing untold legal trouble for scholars already beginning to take advantage of its public domain status to release new editions.

I’ve witnessed at close quarters a similar extension granted to copyrights held by performers and record labels in the EU. What I learned then was that politicians extend copyright like most of us write thank-you notes: it’s the least they can do to show their gratitude for the attentions of an industry they’d have preferred to join had their looks and talent permitted. In the context of the subsidies granted to farmers or fishermen, extending copyright for the benefit of ageing rock stars is something EU lawmakers do in their lunch break. The US is no better: the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act remained subject to constitutional challenge by public interest lawyers as recently as this year.

The problem with legislating in the public interest is the public aren’t always interested. The reason the knowledge industry lobbyists in Brussels or Washington keep on winning what are essentially unearned hand-outs is because the side that loses out when copyright gets extended – the public – is so diffuse it could never be represented as effectively. This year’s Bloomsday is a rare moment when one sub-section of that public interest in fairer copyright law, the Joyceans who have waited over a century to interpret and remember his work freely, are brought together. And I’m looking forward to a mighty good party.

Becky Hogge is an author, journalist, and digital rights activist whose first book is Barefoot Into Cyberspace.  She is working on a new book, Imaginopoly. Her site is: barefootintocyberspace.com