Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Da Vinci goes to court

You will have heard, no doubt, that the court case relating to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has just started in the High Court in London. Two authors of a 1982 non-fiction book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, are accusing Dan Brown of breaching their copyright. He done stole their ideas, man, and it ain't right. Especially as he made lots of money, and they want some.

The general feeling seems to be that this case, to quote the Scotsman, 'will either make publishing history or be dismissed as a storm in a teacup.' (Link from Bookslut.) I don't think it will do either, though mercifully I know little of the law.

What little I do know suggests to me that, whichever way the case goes, no writer or publisher is henceforth going to be able to look at the outcome and say Aha -- that means that I can definitely do this. Or, That means I definitely can't do that.

No, the English law that we all know and love so well just isn't that straightforward. If it were, we wouldn't need all those highly paid lawyers, would we? And that would never do.

Neither is the case going to be dismissed as a storm in a teacup. It will be gleefully reported at length, by every newspaper in the world which is keen to fill up white space, i.e. all of them. Try the Times, for instance, both yesterday, and today for an account of day two.

I find it all a bit tedious, frankly. I will just repeat here what I said on 17 September 2004, namely that the basic idea behind The Da Vinci Code, that Jesus Christ fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, is not an original idea. Yes, it is to be found in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. But it's probably found in lots of other sources as well, dating back centuries. I can't substantiate that claim because I haven't done the research, and I haven't done the research because I can't be arsed, and I can't be arsed because I'm not being paid £500 an hour, like Dan Brown's lawyers. But I bet you it is so. And if the Brown legal team can't prove it then they're not earning their money.

I also had more to say about this on 24 September 2004, when I predicted that the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail would lose their case; a prediction which I see no reason to change.

In short, the only really interesting aspect of the whole affair is this: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail had three authors. But only two are suing. Why?

My guess is that the third, Henry Lincoln, had a think about the situation, noted the vagaries of English law, and the prodiigiously high cost of trying to rectify wrongs through same, and said to his friends something like this:

Well guys, if you want to pay the enormous school fees (£25,000 a year nowadays) for the numerous children of several already more than comfortably placed English lawyers, feel free. But include me out.

Thus proving that he is just about the only sensible person in the whole business.

The Times today also has an article about the fact that every great writer seems to have borrowed plots wholesale from previous writers: Goethe, Marlowe, Chaucer, and Shakespeare are mentioned.

In the case of Shakespeare it wasn't just plots. It was whole passages which he copied out and turned into speeches. Consider, for instance Shakespeare's famous speech about Cleopatra's progress down the Nile:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them...

If you compare that with the relevant passage in Holinshed's Chronicles, you will find that Shakespeare stole it, almost word for word. he simply converted it into blank verse. And Holinshed, in turn, presumably got his information from some classical source.

So much for originality. As I have said before, it is a virtue much over-rated.

(Later note. Actually, as one scholarly commenter informed me, Shakespeare didn't steal the barge speech from Holinshed. He cribbed it from Thomas North's translation of Plutarch. Mind you, it is fifty years since I studied the text, but nevertheless there's a lesson for us all. 'You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir.' Martin Routh, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, 1791-1854.)


K.S. said...

As an American, I know virtually nothing about English law, but I get the strange feeling this case will go away after a brief period of intense publicity drives up the sales of Holy Blood and Holy Grail. Random House, as I understand it, is the publisher of both books, so it would have been easy to orchestrate this lawsuit as a publicity stunt. OTOH, they wouldn't want the lawsuit to go all the way to court, because that would inconvenience one of their bestselling authors, Dan Brown. Besides, a precedent establishing that historians can copyright their theories about history would have a chilling effect on historical fiction, and what publisher wants to see a chilling effect on any genre of book?

marlyat2 said...

I haven't read Dan Brown, but I understand that the Magdalene-Christ heresy dates to the myth-making of the Frankish Merovingian dynasty. Kings are strong on aggrandizing legend. Perhaps the next bestseller by someone hoping to ride those devilish Brown coat-tails (appetizing image) will be mining the legacy of Dagobert II... And probably claiming that the Merovingian kings were the Nephilim.

hh said...

Sorry, but Shakespeare cribbed the bit about Cleopatra and her barge -- and a lot more -- from Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, not from Holinshed.

Jon McGee said...

The whole Knights Templar/Holy Grail thing was also done by Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum. It's not like it's an original story idea.
Can't we stop giving Dan Brown publicity?
Note also such instances of authorial theft as Zadie Smith's latest novel On Beauty, the structure of which was stolen wholesale and unapologetically from E.M. Forster's novel Howard's End.

Lynne W. Scanlon said...

"When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research." -- Wilson Mizner