Meera Nair

On Holiday with Victor Hugo

In Posts on July 10, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I almost gave up on a blog entry for this week; I contemplated posting just a title, Gone Fishing, and assumed that readers would figure it out. But, as I took in the Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal, naturally, my thoughts turned to copyright…

Gothic architecture is beautifully described in Victor Hugo’s work, Notre Dame de Paris. And through his protagonist Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Hugo depicts the cathedral as the pinnacle of human expression:

In those days, he who was born a poet became an architect. All the genius scattered among the masses and crushed down on every side under feudalism …finding no outlet but in architecture, escaped by way of that art, and its epics found voice in cathedrals. All other arts obeyed and put themselves at the service of the one. They were the artisans of the great work; the architect summed up in his own person, sculpture, which carved his façade; painting, which dyed his windows in glowing colours; music, which set his bells in motion and breathed in his organ pipes. Even poor Poetry – properly so called, who still persisted in eking out a meagre existence in manuscript – was obliged, if she was to be recognised at all, to enroll herself in the service of the edifice, either as hymn or prosody … (Hugo 1917, p.186-187).

As it so happened, Hugo had a keen interest in copyright. He championed the establishment of an international copyright law; his efforts culminated in what eventually became the Berne Convention. But Hugo’s advocacy included protection of the public domain; as the keynote speaker at the Paris World Exposition of 1878, he left no doubt as to his priorities:

Je déclare que s’il me fallait choisir entre le droit de l’écrivain et le droit du domaine public, je choisirais le droit du domaine public
—If I have to choose between the rights of the author and the rights of the public domain, I will choose the rights of the public domain—
(Hugo (1878) quoted in Wirtén 2004, p.184 n.11)

By the way, Hugo’s famous lament This Has Killed That, via the voice of Frollo, was in reference to the demise of architecture at the hands of the printing press. But, even in his despair, Frollo recognizes the creative possibilities:

…from the moment that architecture is nothing more than an art like any other … it is powerless to monopolize the services of others … Each art gains by this divorce. Thus isolated, each waxes great. Stone-masonry becomes sculpture; pious illumination, painting; the restricted chant blooms out into concerted music (Hugo 1917, p.190).

Hugo, Victor M. 1917. Notre Dame De Paris [1831], ed. William A. Neilson. New York: P.F. Collier and Son. (Also available through Project Gutenberg.)
Wirtén, Eva Hemmungs. 2004. No Trespassing: Authorship, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Boundaries of Globalization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  1. Wonderful!

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