The Dan Brown code

Updated: Mar 26 2006, 05:30am hrs
While the jury or rather the sole judge Peter Smith is out on the Dan Brown case, a verdict of not guilty seems most likely. In a way, the case was almost lost from the start.

Dan Brown was accused of large-scale plagiarism from a previously published book, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail in his best-selling book The Da Vinci Code. The authors of The Holy Blood Michael Baigent and Peter Leigh, had brought action against Dan Brown and his publishers and sued them for 2 million.

This was indeed a high profile case involving the top legal talent in England. At stake in the tense courtroom drama was the reputation of an author and a book which has sold over 10 million copies and above all, the reputation of a publishing com- pany, Random House, which made its resolve to fully stand by and support its best-selling author when its UK chairperson, Gail Rebuck accompanied Brown to court on opening day.

Notwithstanding the eventual verdict, due this Easter, the case afforded a great opportunity to define copyright law in publishing, and how much borrowing infringes this law. We hope the judgment when delivered, will succeed in this. But from what we have seen of this case, as the trial has proceeded, leaves us with a lot of doubt.

The case, perhaps inevitably, has been of grandstanding, of rival lawyers exhibiting their acumen in reducing testimony of untutored witnesses to shreds. Both Baigent and Leigh were proved to be unreliable witnesses, with the counsel for Brown, John Baldwin being particularly harsh on Baigent branding him as either extremely dishonest or a complete fool.

At stake was the charge that Brown had stolen the architectural edifice of ideas in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail published as a non-fiction work in 1982. The central idea that Jesus married Mary Magdelene, the couple had a child and the bloodline still survives, is perhaps not new. Yet it was The Holy Blood which linked Jesus bloodline to the Merovingian dynasty in southern France. Brown did borrow this from The Holy Blood. There was another book, The Templar Revelation which also asserted this but this book was full of acknowledgement of The Holy Blood.

Interestingly, Brown acknowledged that he had referred to The Templar Revelation during the course of his research into 38 other books and hundreds of other documents but strangely had no recollection of referring to The Holy Blood. It was only when a deeply annotated copy of The Holy Blood was produced in court as evidence, that Brown seemed to jog his memory and recall going through it, something his counsel airily dismissed.

The dictionary defines plagiarism as to steal ideas or passages from anothers work and pass it off as ones own. Maybe this alone is not a sufficient condition to attract the provision of copyright violation. The judge alluded to as much when responding to the arguments of Baigents counsel, Jonathan Rayner-James, who wrote a book on copyright law.

The judge put a barrage of questions to Baigent and Leigh, challenging them to assert copyright protection over their central ideas.

The judge compared the cross-examination of the central theme in the book, to salami slicing. If, as a result of the salami slicing, what is left is too general, you lose he told the hapless Baigent and Leigh. We hope the final judgment will indeed clarify how much of the real salami is left.