Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Doing it too Brown –a (legal) tale of biblical proportions

I wonder if there is anyone out there who didn’t read (or at least heard of) the religious thriller “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

The book is a blend of historical conspiracy and murder mystery evolving around the theme that the bloodline from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene married into the Merovingian line of French kings and survived by being protected by a secret society based in France.

Random House published the novel that was described by Salman Rushdie as "a book so bad it makes bad books look good."
Nonetheless, it sold 40 million copies in about 40 languages since 2003 and it’s being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster with Tom Hanks as the dashing lead.

So far, so good.
But our multi-millionaire author is now being sued for allegedly ripping off the work of two biblical sleuths in order to provide the basis for his bestseller.
Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent are (two of the three) authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” in which they construct the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and left a traceable bloodline.
They therefore claim that Brown infringed copyright by lifting the central premise of their “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” epos and used it as the main plot for his “The Da Vinci Code”.

Although the legal proceedings are against Random House, Brown’s UK publisher, Hollywood is getting pretty nervous as well.
The movie is set to open in May 2006 and the whole PR machine is already in full force.
If the claim has merit, the opening of the movie would be threatened.
Random House is not amused.
They argued that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”(2 million copies sold) was one of numerous sources consulted by Mr Brown and his, who is an art historian wife Blythe.

Jonathan Rayner James QC represents Leigh and Baigent. He makes a compelling case. He states that Brown had ripped off the very specific thesis of is clients’ work to save time and effort of independent research and to give “The Da Vinci Code” "plausibility.”

A closer look reveals the following:
  • The "central theme" of “The Da Vinci Code” - the bloodline from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene survives today - is the key theory of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • The chief villain of Brown's book is Leigh Teabing. Mr Brown is accused of deliberately forming the name from an anagram of the surnames of the two authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • Jacques Sauniere, the curator of the Louvre found murdered in the “The Da Vinci Code”, has the same surname as Berenger Sauniere, a monk mentioned extensively in “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • The Da Vinci Code mentions specific historical events - the Council of Nicea, which "voted" on the status of Jesus as a deity, and the connection between Godfroi de Bouillon and the bloodline of Jesus - which allegedly appear only in “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”

If successful, the claimants could be awarded a share of the profits from the four million copies of The Da Vinci Code sold in Britain and a proportion of future sales.
The case is expected to last two weeks.

It’s not the first time Mr. Brown has been accused of plagiarism.
In August 2005, Brown ended up in a New York City court, when Lewis Perdue claimed that Brown had used sections from two of his novels (“The Da Vinci Legacy” (1983) and “Daughter Of God” (2000).
Perdue sued for $150 million in damages as well as an injunction blocking further distribution of Brown's book and the forthcoming movie adaptation.
Judge George Daniels, presiding at New York District Court, ruled that any similarity between the works of fiction was based on unprotectable ideas, since a reasonable average lay observer would not conclude that The Da Vinci Code is substantially similar to Daughter of God. Furthermore, the court declared any slightly similar elements on the level of generalized or otherwise unprotectable ideas.

The UK proceedings are a lawyer’s dream come true.
If the court rules in favor of the authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, it could open a floodgate of litigation for people who have had their ideas been lifted or stolen.
It would also force authors to be careful where they get their inspiration from and be meticulous in their research.

No matter what the outcome will be, it already has all the makings of a great courtroom thriller…

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