Borges & Copyright (1/2)

It’s not uncommon these days to hear that copyright is an obsolete concept, or at least no longer a tenable one. People download images and songs willy-nilly off the web and repost them on their blogs or social media accounts with little regard for that antique if not by now quaint notion of intellectual property. So what? Usually no one cares, or the practice is so pandemic that resistance is assumed futile.

I’m spurred towards this crotchety line of thinking by the recent example of an author, Pablo Katchadjian, who wrote and had published a short (very short) book that incorporated and expanded on the Borges story “The Aleph,” and who now faces serious consequences from an Argentinian criminal court. See Fernando Sdrigotti’s article at The Guardian, “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, not a crime.”

While I admit that the charges and possible penalty are entirely out of proportion to the alleged crime, I do lack sympathy for someone who purports to be professionally engaged in literature and who has the gall to appropriate another author’s work — not yet in the public domain — for their own project with nary a thought to permissions or rights agreements. Sdrigotti cites the other Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” but doesn’t bother to mention that it’s there a question of a centuries-old work long in the public domain being appropriated. If I recall, Menard doesn’t even publish his plagiarized text, does he? Correct me if I’m wrong. He only reproduces a passage of a certain length — less even, I think, than the 4,000-word length of “The Aleph” in question here.

The article’s title suggests some of the confusion — yes, Katchadjian’s Fattened Aleph may be a “legitimate experiment,” a remix as it’s so popular to say in this day and age; it may even be quite brilliant; but is it legal to publish it? “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, but without rights in order it ought not to be published.”

I’m not in favor of draconian punishments for copyright violators — nothing is more repugnant to me — but artists above all should see that copyright and intellectual property law serve a vital function, not least protecting the livelihood of artists.

1 Comment


  • What’s funny about this news story, though, is that it contradicts Borges’s thoughts on literature. I am reading a book by Sergio Waisman that more or less states the following: Borges once said that “Pierre Menard” was “his first story”, and critics have debated about the possibility of it being a theory of literature in itself. Pierre Menard actually translates, mistranslates, writes and re-writes many texts before attempting to write Don Quixote again. Borges wrote a couple of essays about translation where he praises translations that are “mistranslations” in which the translator added, eliminated, or changed things that weren’t in the original text (“irreverent translations” was the term Borges used). Among his most famous phrases are “The original is unfaithful to the translation” and his claim that there are no “definitive texts, but only drafts”, meaning that an original text is not superior to its translation and the latter may be full of “creative infidelities”. He challenged the superiority of texts and the concept of authorship because he felt that this attitude meant a gain, not a loss, for new writers and translators in South America. Besides, his works are full of intertextuality and spurious texts (for instance, he wrote a new end for “Martín Fierro”, without doubt the most important text in Argentinean literature).
    Menard only copied a couple of chapters from Don Quixote and part of another one, but this selection is critical. When Borges quotes a few lines from chapter 9 from Don Quixotes’s/Menard’s work, Waisman says, we should note that at the end of chapter 8 we learn that the story of Don Quixote has two possible authors: Cervantes and Cide Hamete Benengeli. So Borges is clearly challenging the concept of authorship here.
    I agree with you on the importance of intellectual property law, but it really surprised me to learn what happened to poor Katchadjian, given Borges’s revolutionary ideas!

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