Bookplanet: it's OK to rip off Victor Hugo, French court finds
Heir of Victor Hugo fails to stop Les Mis II
France's highest appeal court allows modern sequel to 1860s masterpiece
By Kim Willsher/Guardian
The great-great-grandson of Victor Hugo said yesterday he was bitterly disappointed after his six-year battle to ban a modern sequel to Les Misérables was ended by France's highest appeal court.
But he vowed to continue fighting to protect what he described as his family's "moral rights" to the classic work.
"I believed we were fighting the good cause but the court decided otherwise. It is very, very disappointing," Pierre Hugo said. "I am not just fighting for myself, my family and for Victor Hugo but for the descendants of all writers, painters and composers who should be protected from people who want to use a famous name and work just for money." Mr Hugo, 59, a goldsmith, has been fighting to have banned Cosette ou le Temps des Illusions (Cosette or the Time of Illusions), written by journalist François Cérésa. He had demanded £450,000 damages, claiming the publishers had betrayed the spirit of his ancestor's work to make money.
Angry descendants have written to President Jacques Chirac, to the European parliament and to France's culture ministry urging them to criticise the book. In an open letter to the French newspaper Libération they asked: "Can one imagine commissioning the 10th symphony of Beethoven?" Hugo purists were furious that Cérésa resurrected Inspector Javert, the villain of Hugo's story who jumps into the Seine at the end, and recast him as a hero.
The court decision met with a sigh of relief from authors, playwrights and musical producers who had feared an end to adaptations of classical works.
The case set French copyright laws, which put a literary work in the public domain 70 years after the author's death, against the concept of an author's "moral rights". The latter are considered timeless and passed on to descendants.
Mr Hugo argued that the sequel, branded Les Mis II by critics, violated the "respect of the integrity" of Les Misérables, which Hugo wrote in 1862. The first court threw out his case saying he had not proved he was related to the author.
In 2004 an appeal court overturned this verdict, ruling that an author's rights were transmissible to heirs. It called Les Misérables "a veritable monument of world literature" and agreed that Hugo "would not have accepted for a third party to write a sequel". The publishers were ordered to pay symbolic damages of €1 but appealed.
Yesterday the French court of cassation decided Cosette, published by Plon, did not betray the spirit of the original or breach descendants' rights.
Mr Hugo said: "I don't mind adaptations and many are very good but this book is not an adaptation. I have read it and it is not badly written but the publishers used Victor Hugo's name and the title Les Misérables as a commercial operation ... It was nothing to do with literature, they were just trying to make money."
Mr Cérésa's lawyers argued that banning his novel would violate freedom of expression and prevent others using great works of art and literature as inspiration. Victor Hugo himself once wrote: "The writer as a writer has but one heir - the public domain."
Victor Hugo , who died in 1885, is considered one of the finest French Romantic writers. His best-known other work is The Hunchback of Notre Dame but he also wrote poetry and drama. Les Misérables is set in the early 19th century and tells of the struggle of Jean Valjean, a former convict, to redeem himself and the refusal of Inspector Javert to let him escape his past. It has spawned plays, musicals and more than 45 film adaptations. Currently at the Queen's Theatre, it is London's longest running musical at 21 years.