When Code and Law Collide

By Neal Comment

For those of us in New York, Sarah Lyall’s NYT coverage of the Da Vinci Code trial delivers a solid overview of the plagiarism charges Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of 1982’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail have made against Dan Brown—though we should be careful to note that they’re not suing Brown himself, but his UK publisher, Random House (who also happens to be their UK publisher). Although Brown is at the trial, where he’ll testify for Random and, presumably, put off finishing the book that’s no longer being called The Solomon Key for another couple weeks as Baigent and Leigh try to prove that his novel rips off the “architecture” of their historical hypothesis that Jesus never died, but married Magdalene and ran off to France, where a secret society guards his descendants until the day they can establish a new imperial Christendom…or something like that; I always get hazy around the back half of these conspiracy theories.

“Mr. Brown does not deny that he consulted The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail [as the book is known in England] before publishing The Da Vinci Code. In fact, one of his characters—Sir Leigh Teabing, a partial anagram of the authors’ surnames—actually has the book on his bookshelf. In one passage in The Da Vinci Code Mr. Brown summarizes the Jesus-Mary Magdalene theory, saying that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is the most important book in the area.”

While Lyall acknowledges the defense’s counterargument that Holy Blood is “just one of many sources” Brown consulted, it’s in the British accounts that we learn of Random’s more specific claim that he’d already figured out most of the mystery on his own before discovering Baigent and Leigh’s book. (Which makes me wonder if he’s ever read Foucault’s Pendulum, which makes an explicit joke of its debt to Holy Blood…) In that English coverage, the legal editor for the Guardian considers the millions at stake in the trial, but elicits quotes from a solicitor specializing in copyright to illustrate just how hard it may be for the Holy Blood crew to prove their claim: “If somebody picks up your idea and says that’s a great idea and works on it themselves, that’s not breach of copyright. That’s how creative things work.” The Independent, The Times of London, and Financial Times are among those adding their own perspective to the trial.