Monday, April 10, 2006

The Judge as Literary Critic

Hey, I thought that was my job:

In issuing his opinion, Justice Peter Smith said Mr. Brown had indeed relied on the earlier work, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail," in writing a section of "The Da Vinci Code." But he said two of the authors of "Holy Blood," Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, had failed in their effort to prove that Mr. Brown had stolen their "central theme" because they could not accurately state what that theme was.

In fact, Justice Smith said, in a ruling that was at times sharply critical of the plaintiffs — as well as of Mr. Brown and his wife, Blythe, who does much of his research — the earlier book "does not have a central theme as contended by the claimants: it was an artificial creation for the purposes of the litigation working back from 'The Da Vinci Code.' "

I have not read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and I obviously can't say whether the judgment is sound (I do think it's interesting that Brown's wife didn't testify).

While the judge states that Brown is innocent of out-and-out plagiarism, both he and some of the people interviewed in the Times article suggest there is nevertheless a borrowing of some kind:

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer in London, said in an interview that while Random House's victory was practically a foregone conclusion, "what's interesting is that the P.R. machine for Dan Brown and Random House is cranking up to portray this as some famous vindication of Dan Brown."

He continued: "Whilst the decision shows that he didn't infringe copyright, his moral behavior is more, in my view, open to question. It's clear that he used the fundamental themes and ideas of 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail,' and many people will think that morally, Dan Brown owes a debt to Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln."

Tsk, tsk, Mr. Brown. But of course if you were to do the same thing with your next novel, no one would, legally, be able to do anything about it. (But watch out: your fans might rebel, one of these days.)

I'd like to do one of these historico-religious thrillers, postulating a conspiracy around the newly discovered Gospel of Judas. The protagonist of my book would actually be found to be a physical descendent of the Biblical Judas (call him "Henry Iscariot"), who's made it his life's mission to exculpate his infamous ancestor for once and for all. Along the way, he has to fight a sinister billionaire Televangelist who urges viewers to "Kill the Judas in your heart, and accept Jesus." In my book, the Televangelist publishes a book himself, blaming all the world's troubles on Judas (his book somehow shows that the Prophet Muhammed was a descendent, as was Adolf Hitler). And shortly after it's published, Henry Iscariot finds there is a contract out on his life! But it turns out that the sinister minister is himself a descendent from the same family, a branch that has disowned its ancestral identity. They are, as it were, the Judases of Judas! But does the Minister know the truth of his own background? If so, why is he trying to suppress it? And who is trying to kill Henry?

And so on. (Feel free to steal that idea and make millions of dollars.)


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

George Martin explored a little about this in his story The Cross and the Dragon. It can be found in the anthology:

Don't go looking for high literature here though.

10:41 AM  
abhishek said...

In common law, copyright protects only "expression" of ideas, not ideas themselves. Every new work, in effect, borrows some concepts from previous works. So you can't really protect ideas.
Moreover the concepts kicked about in Da Vinci Code reads like a who's who of western conspiracy theories. These have been around for longer than 'HBHG' and have been dealt with by other authors as well. IMO the good Judge decided it correctly. After all if you are writing fiction, you are going to use some themes and why shouldn't some of them be from 'HBGH'. I don't hardly think its immoral. The expression is protected but the ideas themselves are in the public domain. I have a feeling M/s. Baigent and Leigh were attracted by the moolah being raked in by Mr. Brown and decided thay could use some of it.

4:05 PM  
badmash said...

Dude, you're onto something with that novel idea. Go for it! ;)

4:20 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Very funny, Amardeep! Not shabby at all... Da Vinci Code and the Danish cartoons rolled in one explosive mix. Does Dan Brown read your blog? He is looking at several millions more, if he stumbles upon this one. I pick Mel Gibson to play the televangelist.

4:45 PM  
Lucy Tartan said...

I imagine the televangelist as a member of the new wave eveangelicals who combine pentecostalism with stadium rock. Henry Iscariot should be a Harvard CultStud academic, specialising in the iconography of Presleyana, and in his spare time hanging around indie record shops a la High Fidelity.

The gorgeous sidekick should be the daughter of a Mafia dynasty turned member of witness protection program. At the beginning of the story she is languishing in a French convent, disguised as a nun. About two thirds of the way through she can take off her wimple.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Kazantzakis estate believes that morally, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln owes a debt to them.

1:02 AM  

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