Thursday, March 02, 2006

Da Vinci Code Lawsuit

The lawsuit brought by the authors of the 1982 bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is a ludicrous stretch. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are suing their own publisher, Random House, which also published Dan Brown’s best selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, for breach of copyright.

Their claim is that Brown used their historical speculation as the basis for his book. For some background, what is being referred to is their central thesis that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and the couple produced a royal bloodline that once reigned over France as the Merovingian dynasty.

While it’s true that those ideas figure prominently in Brown’s book as the motive for the murder of the museum official who, because he is the guardian of this secret, is found dead in the first chapter, The Da Vinci Code is so much more than that. It is a thriller that takes its protagonists, Robert Langdon, a professor of art and religious symbolism, and Sophie Neveux, the granddaughter of the murder victim and the leading suspect, on a chase across Paris to flee the police and gather evidence to prove her innocence of the crime. It also pits the duo against a shadowy Opus Dei member who is trying to kill Langdon and Neveux to prevent long guarded Church secrets from being uncovered.

There’s no doubt that all the speculation about Jesus, Magdalene and a holy bloodline contributed to the public’s fascination with Brown’s story. But it’s also a heart-stopping thriller with a zillion plot twists that are original to Brown, the novelist.

Brown is not being sued, his publisher is. However, the question is whether he breached the other authors’ copyrighted material. He’s not accused of lifting out verbatim passages from their work. Rather, the accusation is that he misappropriated their ideas for his book.

There are, at least, three separate objections to this accusation. First, and this seems to be the way the legal defense is leaning, published ideas and speculations of this sort become part of the public domain, so this particular claim of copyright privilege is too broad.

That may be true. After all, if nobody could ever build on another’s ideas and speculation, virtually no new ideas could ever be formed since most of what we think of as original work is really old ideas reformulated in new and startling patterns.

But besides the objection that the plaintiffs are overreaching, a second point of objection is that Brown never made a secret that Baigent’s and Leigh’s earlier work formed the basis for his own speculation. Indeed, Brown seemed determined to give Baigent and Leigh all the credit he could at every turn. He lists them in the book’s bibliography. He has one of his characters, Leigh Tebing, quote their book, with attribution. And he mentions the earlier book in an acknowledgement. You would think that a normal person whose book has been off the bestseller list for ten years would be grateful for such a plug.

However, in still a third point, why pick on Brown when others have been working the same waterfront for more years? Indeed there is a virtual cottage industry of books about exactly the same themes that Baigent, Leigh and Henry Lincoln (who is also a co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but who declined to join the suit) explored in 1982. Why did these writers never sue Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince whose The Templar Revelation covers much the same ground that their own work did and was non-fiction to boot? Or other non-fiction writers, such as Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, or Laurence Gardner, who wrote Bloodline of the Holy Grail and other tomes that also explore the royal dynasty left by Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ?

Since all of those are non-fiction books that are actually closer to rivaling Holy Blood, Holy Grail than Dan Brown’s novel, it seems suspicious that just now, with a movie version of The Da Vinci Code coming out, that this should land in court.

However, the ideas in dispute were not even original to Leigh and Baigent. The truth is that speculation about Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been floating around since at least the second century Gnostics. In fact, if I were a clever and ambitious lawyer out for a bit of publicity, here’s the lawsuit I’d be drawing up right now: Baigent and Leigh v. the International Brotherhood of Gnostics and Heretics – Local 666.

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