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The Dan Brown whodunnit

The copyright trial over The Da Vinci Code is weaving a tangled web.

Eugenio Triana

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As if Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code hadn’t caused controversy enough, it is now the focus of a court case for accusations of copyright infringement.

Plagiarism cases are always heated. All of us think and write, so there is a general empathy with the temptation to borrow a particularly apt expression, joke or idea. Then there is the public nature of the crime – Judge Peter Smith has been poring over evidence that anyone who can buy a book can acquire, and with it the ability to judge and make a decision for themselves.

However, the attention the trial has received will probably be shortlived. Although such cases promise much, it may well peter out into a disappointing anti-climax.

A judgement of plagiarism must be plain for all to see. In American law it is described as a ‘substantial similarity’, ‘judged by the spontaneous response of a lay observer’ (1); it is all down to that hair-rising gotcha moment when you realise that you’ve seen this somewhere before. Plagiarism should be as clear, but it’s not. This language of the plain and the crystal clear conceals the fact that we navigate in murky waters.

Especially when it comes to artistic material, the line of plagiarism is often blurred. An accusation of plagiarism assumes not only that you can spot a repetition but that you know where originality lies. If I were to tell you that I’ve stood on the shoulder of giants or that either that wallpaper goes or I do, you might think that I was projecting Newton and Wilde; yet the first was a probably a popular saying at the time and the second is almost certainly apocryphal. Play G, G, G, E-flat on a piano and they are only notes (and surely you can’t copyright notes, or their progression) but play them just so and you get da-da-dumm: it’s the fifth symphony, one of the most recognisable pieces of music. Plagiarism, for all its seeming obviousness, hardly ever affords us black-and-white territory, unless in straight cases of copy-and-paste.

Plagiarism carries with it implications of laziness, lack of ideas, use of tired techniques; the self-plagiarist repeats himself and a tired culture is cliché-ridden. Dan Brown is no stranger to accusations of an idle approach to writing. The Da Vinci Code is a film plot with well-worn twists and dialogues and a conspiracy theory that throws many ingredients into the pan. It is also a re-tread of his earlier Angels and Demons, both in character types and plot.

The plaintiffs inspire no greater confidence. The case had earlier been described as focusing on the relationship between an author of fiction and his historical sources. This angle almost instantly vanished; the first few days of the trial have shown that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of the (pseudo)historical The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, on which The Da Vinci Code might have been based, have taken a novel approach to legal argument. They called their book a work of ‘historical hypotheses’ rather than historical fact.

Leigh and Baigent’s historical hypotheses are certainly unorthodox, proclaiming that Jesus (assumed to have existed) in fact married Mary Magdalene and produced a line which became the royal Merovingian line in France, now intent on returning to power through the use of a secret sect called the Priory of Sion, a return to power which is welcomed by the authors in the book as a return to a more spiritual world in these mindless materialist times. The authors had some help in connecting these dots in the way in which they did, as the above hypotheses was largely supplied by Pierre Plantard, a man primarily known for founding the secret sect of the Priory of Sion in the mid-1950s who believed himself to be the descendant of Merovingian King Dagobert II. (Plantard admitted to the Parisian courts in 1993 that he had made it all up.)

So the author of a conspiracy thriller, its success legitimised by its basis on alleged truth, is now sued for copyright infringement by the authors of a historical work which has now become all hypothesis and no fact, which mostly featured a man who turned the fictions in his own mind into dubious factual documents.

The legal case itself provides some intrigue. For example, there is in fact a third author to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Henry Lincoln, who has not joined the suit under claims of ill health. Also conspicuously absent has been Dan Brown’s wife, Blythe Brown, who is supposed to have done the research for her husband and presumably was the one to read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and note down its points of interest.

The Da Vinci Code court case might end up as nothing more than a show to the enormous success of Dan Brown’s novel. Given the bizarre nature of both sides, this will perhaps be for the best. It is rare that copyright law can ever fulfil its promise as a litmus test separating human imagination from human self-delusion.

Eugenio Triana is working as an intern at spiked.

(1) Warner Bros Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, cir. 1981

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