Sony Bono, Mickey Mouse and John Clare

by Chris Bertram on January 29, 2006

I watched Peter Ackroyd’s BBC programme on the “Romantic poets”: yesterday and was rather taken with the account of John Clare. So I was googling around trying to find out more and, via the “Wikipedia entry”: , happened upon the extraordinary fact that much of Clare’s work is subject to a copyright dispute. Since Clare died in 1864 I wondered how this could be so. There’s a page of links on the whole dispute at the “John Clare page”, but the in-a-nutshell version is in “a Guardian article by John Goodridge”:,4273,4042964,00.html :

bq. Under the 1842 Copyright Act which was in force at Clare’s death, in the case of published works copyright endured for 42 years after publication or seven years after the author’s death, whichever was later. Thus three of Clare’s published volumes came out of copyright in 1871, and the fourth in 1877. For unpublished works, however, copyright was a very different matter. Under common law, an author, or after his death his personal representative, retained perpetual control over his work as long as it remained unpublished. This is particularly important in Clare’s case, since his four published volumes contained only about 10% of his total output – some 300 poems out of more than 3,000 he wrote in his lifetime. This common law “perpetual” loophole for unpublished material was written into the Copyright Acts of 1911 and 1956, and finally replaced in the 1988 Act with a finite, 50-year term of protection (made potentially extendable by a further 25 years in a 1996 Act). In Clare’s case, this could extend the copyright claim well into the middle of this century ….

There’s more, including the tenuous chain by which the copyright was passed on and the more recent purchase of the rights for £1 by a US academic.



Brendan 01.29.06 at 12:46 pm

The copyright of Clare’s work is one of the major scandals of the academic study of literature. The only comparison I can think of is Valerie Eliot’s hold over the copyright of T.S. Eliot’s stuff, but in her case at least there is some reason as to why she is helping to suppress some of this stuff.

Robert Graves and a few others always argued that John Clare was one of the greatest of Romantic poets, perhaps THE greatest. Certainly he lacks the middle class ‘oh woe is me, it’s awful being a rich and succesful poet’ whining that sometimes mars the writing of Wordsworth and (especially) Coleridge.


Michael 01.29.06 at 1:14 pm

“Rich and successful?” Are you kidding me? Do you know anything at all about the biographies of Wordsworth and Coleridge? Evidently not.


g 01.29.06 at 1:29 pm

Presumably “Sony Bono”, on the analogy of “Cui bono?”, means “For the good of Sony”. Deliberate or accidental?


g 01.29.06 at 1:37 pm

I have it on excellent authority that Wordsworth had at least a handful of silver. And, I believe, a riband to stick in his coat.


Kieran Healy 01.29.06 at 2:36 pm

I have it on excellent authority that Wordsworth had at least a handful of silver. And, I believe, a riband to stick in his coat.

Also a sister to take care of the practical stuff — very handy to have aroun the house, if you’re a true romantic genius.


Jim S 01.29.06 at 3:12 pm

Ummmm…g, do you really not know why the mention of Sonny Bono in a post on copyright issues? I think the only thing more broken than the copyright system is software patents.


Brendan 01.29.06 at 3:12 pm

‘Do you know anything at all about the biographies of Wordsworth and Coleridge.’

OK to be more specific: the whining of the later Wordsworth. And bad as Coleridge’s position sometimes was it was never quite as bad as Clare’s. (I might add that, depending on your point of view about opium, it could be argued that Coleridge’s problems were to at least a certain extent, self-inflicted).


John Isbell 01.29.06 at 3:43 pm

Poet Laureate does count as pretty successful, if you’re a poet. A far cry from the madhouse. Curiously, French and German Romanticism each had a major mad poet: Nerval and Hoelderlin.

“I am, yet who I am none cares or knows;
My friends desert me like a memory lost…”

Trying to picture Coleridge (or Keats) writing those words.


g 01.29.06 at 4:14 pm

Jim: of course I know why the mention of Sonny Bono. But the post title has “Sony Bono” rather than “Sonny Bono”, and I was tickled by (1) the allusion (deliberate or not) to Sony, one of the more enthusiastic pursuers of protection for their “intellectual property”, and (2) the fact that (taking “Sony”, as a non-Latin noun, to be indeclinable) “Sony Bono” actually has a very appropriate meaning and one rather more honest than the official monicker of the CTEA. “Disney Bono” would have been even better, but one can’t have everything.

And, for what it’s worth, I agree about software patents and am a little inclined to think likewise about patents generally.


Chris Bertram 01.29.06 at 5:40 pm

Post in haste, regret at leisure. Should have been Sonny, but I’ll leave Sony up now since it has proved accidentally apposite.


Kieran Healy 01.29.06 at 5:53 pm

I originally read the headline as “Sony, Bono, Mickey Mouse … ” and wondered what U2 had to do with it.


John Quiggin 01.29.06 at 10:20 pm

I mentally supplied the missing ‘n’, without being aware of it. Isn’t serendipity wonderful?

And the Clare story is amazing.


nick s 01.30.06 at 7:49 am

You will be reading Iain Sinclair’s latest book, which is sort of on Clare, won’t you? He is, after all, the Peter Ackroyd it’s okay to like.


Nick Barnes 01.30.06 at 8:50 pm

You have surely all read Byatt’s Possession? This fact about copyright forms a vital part of the plot.


Jim S 01.30.06 at 9:44 pm

It’s sad when your brain supplies missing letters.

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