Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Da Vinci Phenomenon

You may or may not have heard about the copyright trial going on over whether Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, ripped off the ideas from authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's own earlier work. Well, I just found out the closing statements were made a week or so ago, and the verdict from the judge is supposed to come within the next week or so.

What I found particularly humorous though, was a question raised by some: why would someone make a copyright suit over these so-called "factual" claims in the Brown book?
[F]or Brown, as the book has filtered into the awareness of people who are qualified to refute most of its claims, he's always been able to plead fiction; "The Da Vinci Code" is, after all, only a novel. Although he begins the book with a statement that it accurately describes real documents, and that the Priory of Sion really does exist, even this leaves him with plenty of wiggle room. The book's selling point is the impression that it contains large and provocative servings of historical fact; yet when challenged on the many fallacies in his novel, Brown can always assert that, as a work of fiction, "The Da Vinci Code" can't be held to any standard of accuracy.

A cozy situation for Brown, but it became somewhat less so recently when, in the U.K., a lawsuit was filed against him for "breach of copyright of ideas and research." The complainants, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, are the coauthors, with Henry Lincoln, of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," a bestseller from the early 1980s. Virtually all the bogus history in "The Da Vinci Code" -- nearly everything, in other words, that today's readers' find so electrifying in Brown's novel -- is lifted from "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."

This puts both Brown and the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," in a tricky position. Baigent et al. have always maintained that the "facts" supporting their theories are available to any dedicated scholar and that the theories themselves, while unconventional, have been seriously entertained by other "experts," (including some, they claim, in the "upper echelons" of the Roman Catholic Church).

Since "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" presents itself as nonfiction, it has been in its authors' interest to downplay how much of it is invented. However, if the "research" and ideas in "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" are not the original creations of the book's authors, they become harder to copyright, and the possible infringement suit against Brown might be weakened. No one, after all, has a copyright on the facts surrounding Abraham Lincoln's assassination or the Treaty of Versailles.
Whether this "tricky position" has been talked about in the courtroom, I don't know, but I can laugh about it in the mean time, right?

Additionally, in the mean time, the court case doesn't appear to be doing either book any harm; in fact, they're selling even more copies. Which forces me to ask to myself once again, what is it about The Da Vinci Code that has allowed it to continue to be so popular? And why do so many people still believe the "conspiracy theory" it lays out, despite numerous criticisms from specialists at universities all over (Christians aren't the only ones lamenting over people's naiveness in accepting ideas as fact that Brown puts forth)? I have my own theories, but I'm curious as to what others think first. That, and I'm honestly just fascinated by the whole "Da Vinci" phenomenon that has come over our culture. I think I need to just stop typing and really take it in, this truly remarkable spectacle!


At 4/05/2006 11:20:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

i almost bought the paperback today, which was 40% off with my discount card.

and then, i swear to god, i saw a book called, "the diet code" there...a book that unlocks the dieting secrets of da vinci!

that made me not buy the book.

At 4/16/2006 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Fred Millett said...

You're probably aware Chris, that the ruling came out and Dan Brown won the suit. We talked about this case briefly in my Fundamentals of Intellectual Property course a few days ago. It was rather interesting. They brought the suit in England because England's copyright law is a lot more broad in its coverage and they would have a better chance to win than in the U.S. Still, it wasn't enough.

You cannot receive a copyright in facts. However, you can receive a copyright in a compilation of facts, i.e. the way you write the facts...

At 4/16/2006 01:10:00 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Thanks Fred. I was hoping to get some clarification from someone with more legal knowledge. So I guess the Claimants actually thought Dan Brown had illegally copied their overall way of compiling (or forming a theory) of historical facts, right?

On another (albiet related) note, here are some interesting statements from the judge's ruling:

"The Claimants say I should treat his evidence with caution. That is too high in my opinion. He started confidently enough but ultimately his confidence was gradually eroded by Mr Rayner James QC’s protracted and carefully measured cross examination. In that cross examination Mr Rayner James QC established that in reality Mr Brown knew very little about how the historical background was researched. He in my view simply accepted Blythe Brown’s research material when incorporating it in to the writing of part two of DVC. I do not believe for one minute he was analytical of it or critical of it; he simply accepted it.

"Mr Brown is a fiction writer. As a device to writing fiction he is perfectly entitled to dress up factual scenarios to give an illusion that supports his fiction. He is not (contrary to the complaints of the Claimants) going into deep and detailed research for these factual matters. Indeed as he said in his evidence that would be counterproductive; he wishes to create “grey” areas not black and white. He simply needs therefore a mystery and a series of unanswered questions. He can do that without deep research and that he has done. As he has taken matters at a general and low level of abstraction and he has only taken ideas and facts without any of the architecture (if any) he has done nothing wrong. It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright. I accept that if that was allowed to happen it would have a serious impact on writing. This case whatever its result would not have that impact in my view. However cases can be used for improper purposes."

I especially like two lines: "I do not believe for one minute he (Dan Brown) was analytical of it or critical of it; he simply accepted it" (that is, accepted the Claimants Baigent and Leigh's writing); and "authors of pretend historical books" (describing Baigent and Leigh's writings).

At 4/16/2006 11:54:00 PM, Blogger Fred Millett said...

Yeah, like I said, the "historical writers" claim was baseless. Dan Brown is a fiction writer. He can use any material he wants to research an area of history and write about it. Unless he actualy copied the writing of the other authors word for word, they have no claim against him, even in the U.K. Copyright protects expression, not ideas...


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