Department of English

University of Toronto

Robert Spoo (University of Tulsa College of Law), “International Authors’ Rights and the Uncoordinated Public Domain

Event date: Thursday, November 03, 2016, from 4:15 PM to 6:00 PM
Location: Faculty of Law (Room J140)

Robert Spoo (University of Tulsa College of Law), “International Authors’ Rights and the Uncoordinated Public Domain”

Thursday, November 3 @ 4:15 PM - 6:00 PM


When nations amend their copyright laws in response to calls for international harmonization, they usually do so by expanding authors’ rights without also seeking to harmonize national public domains.  Divergent laws have resulted in an uncoordinated global public domain that renders authors’ works freely available for use in some countries while subjecting them to copyright or moral-rights protection in others.  The problem of the patchwork global commons, exacerbated by unpredictable literary estates and the inconsistent policies of institutional repositories, undermines the ability of researchers to access and disseminate historical and cultural materials, including unpublished works.  The uncoordinated public domain shares certain features–notably, the problem of resource underuse–with what scholars of law and economics call an anticommons.  A balanced solution might be to employ a system of compulsory licenses to harmonize the world’s public domains and to coordinate the legal conditions whereby the vast resources held by cultural institutions could be more fully exploited.  The chief example used throughout this talk is James Joyce–specifically, the ongoing Oxford University Press project, of which Professor Spoo is a co-editor, to collect and publish some 2,000 unpublished letters written by Joyce.

Robert Spoo holds the Chapman Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Tulsa, and was recently named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow. He earned his JD from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Law Journal. After graduating, he served as law clerk for the Hon. Sonia Sotomayor of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and practised for several years in New York, Oklahoma, and San Francisco, providing litigation services and advice in the areas of copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual property. As an attorney, Professor Spoo has represented authors, scholars, documentary filmmakers, record companies, and other creators and users of intellectual property. His litigation work has included serving as co-counsel, with the Stanford Center for Internet & Society and other attorneys, for Professor Carol Shloss of Stanford against the Estate of James Joyce. Prior to his legal career, Professor Spoo received his PhD in English from Princeton and taught for more than ten years in the University of Tulsa English Department, where he was also editor of the James Joyce Quarterly. He has published numerous books and articles on Joyce, Ezra Pound, and other modern literary figures. His teaching interests include copyrights and intellectual property, media and entertainment law, law and literature, and the copyright-related needs of scholars. His book Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain (OUP, 2013) offers a legal and cultural history of the impact on non-US authors of protectionist and isolationist features of US copyright laws since 1790. Professor Spoo is a member of the Modernist Studies Association Task Force on Fair Use, serves as copyright advisor to many academic journals and projects, and acts as general counsel for the International James Joyce Foundation. He also serves on the National Library of Ireland advisory board, and has assisted with proposed copyright legislation for the Republic of Ireland and other copyright issues affecting Irish cultural institutions.


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