Copyright law meets synthetic life meets James Joyce

By Carl Zimmer | March 15, 2011 1:37 pm

Last year I wrote about how Craig Venter and his colleagues had inscribed a passage from James Joyce into the genome of a synthetic microbe. The line, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” was certainly apropos, but it was also ironic, since it is now being defaced as Venter’s microbes multiply and mutate.

Turns out there’s an even weirder twist on this story. Reporting from SXSW, David Ewalt writes about a talk Venter just gave. Venter recounted how, after the news of the synthetic microbe hit, he got a cease-and-desist letter from the Joyce estate. Apparently, the estate claimed he should have asked permission before copying the language. Venter claimed fair use.

Man, do I wish this would go to court! Imagine the legal arguments. I wonder what would happen if the court found in the Joyce estate’s favor. Would Venter have to pay for every time his microbes multiplied? Millions of little acts of copyright infringement?

[Update: Looks like it wasn’t actually a cease-and-desist letter the Joyce estate sent–more an expression of disappointment. Ah, life’s grand game of telephone. Joyce would have loved it. After all, he was the sort of novelist who’d write :

“What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one. Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting”]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Synthetic Biology

Comments (33)

  1. Dan

    Could he insert a footnote in the bug? He might consider using citations next time around,

  2. NewEnglandBob

    “Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. “

  3. Please please please let there me a retraction notice in the next edition.

  4. “BE”. Let there BE. Jeez, why doesn’t your blog have the “edit-within-15-mins” function that mine does?

  5. Thanny

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published in 1914 and 1915 (serialized). Copyright terms are ridiculously long, but max out at 95 years past the publishing date. So, the quoted phrase is not, in fact, copyrighted, but instead resides within the public domain, where anyone is free to reproduce it in any fashion.

  6. Jim Johnson

    Copyright only lasts 70 years from the creator’s death. If Venter had waited until January 13th this year, he’d have been good.

  7. Jim Johnson

    No, wait! Per Wikipedia, “In some countries (for example, the United States and the United Kingdom), copyrights expire at the end of the calendar year in question.” So, not public domain until the end of 2011. I guess I learned something new today!

  8. Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce is infamously protective of copyright. See D. T. Max’s profile in The New Yorker, “The Injustice Collector.”

  9. Horribly, wonderfully convoluted. I love it! Could the mutations possibly produce something distinct, but just as beautiful as the original work?

  10. They should sue the DNA replication complexes for the copyright infringements… then we’ll have the first ever per-mole fine!

  11. Kevin Grierson

    The work in question, Portrait of an Artist as a Young MaN, is in the public domain in the US. All works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain here (copyright didn’t last forever back then). See The rule may be different in other countries, but any claim of infringement in the US would fail.

    [CZ: So Venter couldn’t bring his bacteria into Britain?]

  12. Kevin Grierson

    Carl, I’m a US intellectual property attorney, but I don’t know an awful lot about UK copyright law. I do know that there are some important differences in the way copyrights are treated there under their concept of “fair dealing.” I think the copyright in the UK and EU will expire on 1 January 2012, at which point Venter could bring all the bacteria to the UK he pleases without fear of suit for copyright infringement.

  13. IANAL, but I think EU copyright law is 75 years after the author’s death.

  14. Term in the EU, as in the US, is life of the author plus 70 years for works for which the author retains copyright.

  15. Stephen Dedalus

    The responses of incredulity, confusion, and simple advice on copyright law must come from people who haven’t kept up with how Stephen Joyce runs the estate. The D. T. Max article mentioned above is a good one. The man is a bitter ego-maniac with a lot of lawyers.

  16. Jayne the microbe

    What the… The quote was encoded in TAGC. Without the right decryption key it could mean anything. How can one receive a C&D for something like that? Just make up a new key and no one can prove to you that you, in fact, used that particular quote in your microbes. Silly macroscopic lifeforms. Always fighting.

  17. Darren Reynolds

    Joyce’s line has gone viral!

    [CZ: Or bacterial…]

  18. Biologist

    @20 – The code is written in TAGC (the four nucleic acids that make up DNA), then this code is transcribed into AUCG (the complementary nucleic acids of RNA), and then each sequence of three letters is translated into an amino acid. There are 21 amino acids, each designated by a different letter. Amino acids are strung together by the ribosomes and fold up into a protein. Proteins are the functional units of the cell – motors, gates, and energy-producing equipment. This DNA–>RNA–>protein code was not arbitrarily decided by Venter. It is woven into the fabric of life. Writing in this code, the authors included instructions to decode further. So they can’t (and certainly don’t want to) pretend the bacteria says absolutely nothing or anything.

    I like this article. Makes me think of the billion monkeys typing for a billion years to come up with Hamlet. Will these bacteria spin Joyce into Swift? Or maybe into an antifungal?

  19. This is also ironic in view of the fact that when Venter started working on the EST (expressed sequence tag) database he intended to demand copyright for the ESTs, the genes that coded them, and the proteins they produced.

  20. Martin Duys

    Venter holds patents on things that occur in nature i.e. specific gene sequences. Am I correct in saying that? I assume he would intend to make money out of replicating those sequences at some point. He is then threatened with a suit for copying something created by another human being from which he intends to make no money. The irony.

  21. New York Law School’s legal reporting blog, LASIS, takes a look at what would happen if this case made it to the court room:


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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