American authors, editors and attorneys who write, publish and defend with an eye out for Margaret Mitchell should see what happens in France, where the ever-expanding interpretation of moral rights can block the reuse of classics for centuries. The latest case concerns Victor Hugo, whose descendants have gone to court to prevent publication of Cosette, a sequel to Les Misérables (first published in 1862), which shows the young heroine—rescued from a life of misery by the ex-convict hero Jean Valjean—not living happily ever after. A complaint filed by the author's great-great-grandson alleges "manipulation" and "forgery"; author François Cérésa and publisher Olivier Orban of Plon see it as an homage to Hugo and a legitimate one. Orban cites another sequel to Les Misérables published by HarperCollins without incident, followed by a French translation.
As often happens in such cases, the Société des Gens de Lettres—France's authors' guild—is backing the suit in the name of moral rights, for which there are no time limits. Replying to the publisher's argument that literary history is replete with sequels and adaptations, the Hugo heir said that in reviving a character (the wicked Javert) whom Hugo had killed off—Cérésa has him making up for his villainies—the author has actually entered into the original work to change it. The first judgment—which might not be the last—is scheduled for the end of June.