The Da Vinci Lode
A suit for cash over alleged plot purloining
The verdict of readers is clear: They've bought more than 40 million copies of the novel The Da Vinci Code. But now the megaseller faces one more verdict. And if it's negative, it could prove costly to its U.K. publisher, Random House, disrupt the May release of the big-budget film version of the book, and stake out new territory in British copyright law. The issue before High Court Justice Peter Smith: Did author Dan Brown borrow a bit too liberally from an earlier nonfiction book?
The Da Vinci Code's fictional narrative hinges on the conceit that Jesus Christ married disciple Mary Magdalene, and their child married into a French royal family. That hypothesis is also in the 1982 nonfiction book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In their copyright infringement suit against Random House, Holy Blood coauthors Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent--whose book was also published by Random House--argue that Brown lifted the "whole architecture" of their book for his plot. Random House says the notion that Christ was married and fathered children is not an original theory and not copyrightable.
Fuzzy logic. Legal and literary experts expect Random House will prevail. Lorna Brazell, a copyright expert at the international law firm Bird & Bird, says arguing that an idea--particularly an unoriginal theory--has copyright protection is "problematic. That's not what copyright has been about." Adds Oxford University law Prof. David Vaver: "The test here is pretty fuzzy. It's at the edges of what copyright law should be protecting." Author Maureen Freely, who reworked Daphne du Maurier's classic tale Rebecca for her 1996 book, The Other Rebecca, says "using an historical source for a plot isn't plagiarizing."
The Da Vinci Code mentions the Holy Blood book and includes a character whose name is an anagram of Leigh's and Baigent's. "If you are going to plagiarize a book," Brazell says, "that would be a pretty stupid thing to do. And no one is claiming that Dan Brown is stupid."
This story appears in the March 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.