DaVinci Code Plagiarism?

What?

Okay, so we all know that I sometimes retreat into a cave where I have no knowledge of current events. But this isn’t even current. It’s been going on since February. And even I can’t stay in a cave that long.

I’m talking about the plagiarism lawsuit over The DaVinci Code.

I heard about it today and spent some time catching up on the news with some good old Google searching. It appears that the authors of The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail (HBHG), which I thought was a work of non-fiction, are suing the author of The DaVinci Code (DC), clearly a work of fiction, for “appropriating” the central theme of their book for his. The situation is summed up quite nicely in this article from the The Times of London.

I read both books. Here’s my take.

I read DC first, primarily because it was getting so much press. This was about two years ago. I found the story very interesting — in fact, it was the primary reason I kept reading. It had a lot of fascinating “facts” and puzzles. I’m a sucker for fiction based on little-known fact and this had me hooked with its wild premise — that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who escaped to France with their child — based on a string of facts that could just make the premise true. But as for writing style, characterization, etc., Dan Brown missed the boat, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Frank Wilson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, quoted in Opus Dei, said:

In my view, the book is unexceptionally written, with minimal character development and a third-rate guidebook sense of place. It is, however, a quick and easy read, largely because most of the chapters are only a few pages long, and just about all of them end as cliffhangers.

If you don’t pay too much attention, but sort of let the book go in one eye and out the other, you’ll get to the end before you know it. [Emphasis added.]

And Peter Millar of The Times of London (again quoted in Opus Dei — they must love this stuff) said,

This is without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype- driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction that I have read. And that’s saying something. [Emphasis added.]

They said it better than I could. But there was enough page turning action to get people to read it — I breezed through the first half in a day, then finished it up a few days later — and I think the premise was more than enough to get people talking about it. The result: a bestseller from a rather average piece of writing. (It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.)

After reading it, I remember wondering why it was a bestseller. Maybe I missed something? I read fast and that tends to lessen the reading experience. So I did double duty and I read Brown’s Angels and Demons, too. More of the same poor characterization but with better puzzles and an even less believable plot. I don’t need to read any more Dan Brown.

Anyone who thinks Dan Brown is a great writer must read an awful lot of crap. (I’m sure that statement will get me in trouble somewhere.)

Intrigued by the whole Jesus-was-married-and-the-Catholic-Church-tried-to-hide-it thing, I sought out HBHG. I found it in my local library, of all places. It was a slow read, even for me. But I slogged through it. Lots of fascinating stuff, in painstaking detail. (Too much detail for light reading, if you ask me.) It seemed to provide all the background information for DC — the well-researched facts to back up the book’s central premise.

In fact, I always assumed that Dan Brown had read HBHG — he mentions it in DC — and had written a novel based on it. After all, how could he — a novelist — have come up with all that material by himself? It would take years to dig all that up. Or a reading list that included HBHG and a few other books that covered the same general topics.

Mind you, I don’t think it’s wrong to base a work of fiction on a work of non-fiction. And that’s where I’m having a problem with the lawsuit. Is it wrong? Am I wrong to think that it’s not?

My understanding of copyright law is that you cannot copyright an idea. Has someone changed that?

As a Guardian Unlimited article points out,

The case is also likely to clarify existing copyright laws over the extent to which an author can use other people’s research.

And that’s what scares me. Suppose I read a handful of books about Abraham Lincoln in preparation for writing a novel that takes place during his presidency. Suppose one of the books says something silly — like he was gay (hmmm, why does that sound so familiar?) — and that becomes one of the underlying themes of my book. Will the author that built the Lincoln-was-gay premise be able to turn around and sue me for plagiarism?

I guess if my book became a bestseller, anything is possible.

And then there’s Lewis Perdue, the author of Daughter of God, who claims that Dan Brown plagiarized his book. I guess he’ll be suing next. Until then, he’ll keep himself busy with his own blog, The Da Vinci Crock. I haven’t read his book, but if his claims are true, it would appear that he has a stronger case than the HBHG authors. Perhaps he just doesn’t have as much money for lawyers.

The lawsuit’s court case ended today, which is probably why I finally heard about it. You can read the Reuter’s coverage of the closing day here.

I’ll be waiting to hear how the judge rules.

What do you think?