Suing over a book’s architecture

da vinci codeApparently Dan Brown’s use of “historical conjecture” in his wildly popular Da Vinci Code has landed him in the British legal system on a charge of plagiarism. The media are fascinated by the revelations on how Brown wrote his book, his wife’s involvement in forming the more controversial themes of the book and how strange it is to see the laid-back Brown among a bunch of powdered wigs in a British courtroom.

Here’s the New York Times version of what’s happening:

Mr. Brown acknowledges that he used “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (published in the United States as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”), as a source for his book, but contends it was just one of many books and documents he and his wife consulted. Indeed, his protagonist specifically refers to the book in a pivotal scene in “The Da Vinci Code” — a homage, Mr. Brown says; the name of one of Mr. Brown’s characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, was devised as an in-joke reference to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” using the surname of one author and an anagram of the surname of another.

Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh’s case will rise or fall on how much they can prove that Mr. Brown relied on their book in writing his.

So far, their lawyers appear to have only scratched the surface of the issue, although they have in their possession what Mr. Brown says are all his notes, outlines and research materials.

In his statement to the court, he said that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” was full of material that did not appear in “The Da Vinci Code,” and vice versa.

“I would like to restate that I remain astounded by the claimants’ choice to file this plagiarism suit,” he said. “For them to suggest, as I understand they do, that I have ‘hijacked and exploited’ their work is simply untrue.”

For the fans of the books it is great drama, and the revelations on the formation of the book are somewhat interesting, but the real significance of this story is on how the matter could end the genre of historical fiction.

dan brownNow I’m not talking about the basic histories we’re all familiar with. Common-knowledge subjects like the American Civil War, Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the journey of Marco Polo will remain up for grabs. But the more speculative aspects that have been recently explored by researchers and are not established in the history books will be out the window, as explained by author Sarah Dunant, a guest on National Public Ratio’s On the Media last week:

I think the problem about religion is it is based somewhere on a series of facts that nobody quite knows. The notion that Christ may have been married, the notion that Mary Magdalene may have been more than just a poor supplicant, are notions that have been around for a very long time. And if a writer, particularly a thriller writer, a writer where plot is really important, where the uncovering of secrets is really important … as you know, I began life as a thriller writer, and I try and weave in thriller plots to history because the better the book, the more you’re drawing on stuff that is actually fact. Thriller writers do lots of research. The big question here is whether or not an idea, a bigger idea as opposed to a series of facts and opinions, can be copyrighted. And that is a huge question, which I think, even when they have ordered one way or the other in the Dan Brown case, in a sense, we’ll still be asking. …

For a very long time, any kind of novel about history, particularly deliberately historical novels, were more often about kind of kings and queens and big battles and the big accepted history. But the kind of history that is being done by all manner of scholars over the last 40 or 50 years, from women’s research people to people who are interested in gay culture to people who are interested in the hidden bits of the sort of Christian mythology, their job has been to get under the surface, to get to those other nine-tenths of the iceberg. It’s all, in a sense, new and slightly hidden history. So the historical novelist, particularly if you want to write a good thrilling historical novel, which I certainly set out to do, has to use all kinds of sources which, in a sense, are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m a bit disappointed that I have not seen more on this from mainstream publications. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but most of what I’ve read fails to highlight the very essence for which Brown is being sued. Perhaps because the ideas are so controversial, reporters avoid them with the subtle fear that they will make a goof? Or maybe it’s because those suing Brown don’t stand much of a chance to win even in Great Britain, not to mention the United States?

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  • Joseph Selman

    Could this be simply a matter of jealousy on the part of the litigants?

  • Mark Vassilakis

    I remember going through “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” in college about eighteen years ago. When this pulp disguised as a novel first came out, I immediately thought about the former. I guess the ancient Fathers were right about heresies that keep getting rehashed over and over again. It’s bad enough Brown presents a skewed version of history with a liberal dash of anachronism and warmed-over heresy, he has to rip it off from some bargain bin “historical treatise”. What goes around, comes around.

  • Avram

    The DaVinci Code is at least the third treatment in fiction of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail material. It shows up (briefly, and credited in the text) in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And a secret organization called “the Grail”, claiming to be protecting Christ’s bloodline, is the major villain in the first part of the very profane comic series Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

    Wait, those are just the ones I’ve read. Looking in Wikipedia, I see a 1996 novel by Peter Berling called The Children of the Grail, and the third entry in the Gabriel Knight series of computer games. So, make that the fourth or fifth treatment in fiction.

  • Will

    Not to mention the graphic novel HEAVEN’S WAR, which combines the secret-message-in-the-Provencal-church-painting business with a plotline pitting Aleister Crowley against Tolkien and Charles Williams. No, really.

  • Brother Bob

    It’a amazing to me that so many people actually believe the events of the “Da Vinci Code” are really historical. I mean, if Dan Brown is being sued for stealing the idea, and Dan says No, the idea is his own, isn’t anybody paying attention and noticing this must be fiction? Nobody needs to sue anybody else for reporting history, because history cannot be copyrighted.

  • e.s park

    The ghost of thoughts
    1.(The DaVinci Code copyright Infringement )=VENITY, the ghost of thoughts in mirror castle, always imitates other people and fools everyone with beautiful colors and appearances. Although she lives as a colorful queen, she never stopped imitating.(News:The DaVinci Code copyright Infringement )

    2.(Gerald P.Schatten: stem cell)=A clone expert, Dr frank, who desires money, steals children’s imagination(Gerald P.Schatten: stem cell), sells the clone

  • Maureen

    Apparently, the judge is less concerned about the “history” involved than the fact that Mr. Brown apparently plagiarizied large chunks of the HBHG folks’ actual wording, with only a few little changes (synonyms) here and there.


    Also, it’s a bad idea to try to justify yourself in court in such a way that the judge tells you that you’re a liar.

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  • Karen H

    IMHO, neither set of authors–or their publishers–are going to lose, regardless of the outcome. The lawsuit has publicized both books, and I understand copies are flying off the shelves.

    Call me cynical, but I have a feeling both sides knew this.