Copyright law meets synthetic life meets James Joyce

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”]