Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Da Vinci Code author sued

One of the lawsuits that I'm following with keen interest is one surrounding a suit over the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. The premise of the book is that Jesus didn't die on the cross and he was in fact married to Mary Magdelene. Not only that they had children that carried on the divine bloodline and the Catholic church has been hiding this for centuries or something or another.

The merits or lack-thereof concerning this particular plot are not the subject of this post. The lawsuit surrounding it instead is.

You see, it turns out that the book written by Dan Brown is heavily based on work from other authors, particularly a book called "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail". Two of the authors of that book, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are now arguing in court that Dan Brown basically plagiarised their research (but put it in a fictional setting). The case as a result asks very interesting questions as to if it's acceptable for an author to use academic research to write a fictional story around. Central to the claim of the case is if the original work (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) is protected by copyright and if this is the case, if Dan Brown unfairly copied their ideas without permission.

Now, I'm not very up with the particular law surrounding this case and I wouldn't know a lot about how the Judge may rule. What I do know, is that I don't like the implications that a result in favor of the plantiffs (Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh) could mean. For a start, a large number of the authors and books you've probably read found their inspiration from other authors or the real world. There is a fine line between directly copying someones ideas without permission entirely and merely using it as inspiration for your own novel. Consider as well that say someone writes a book on a potential biological terror attack based on literature published from the likes of PNAS. One paper (that is somewhat controversial) from that journal modelled the effects of a botulism attack on the United States through milk supplies. What if an author took that basic research as the inspiration for their own work of fiction? Could the original authors of the paper sue them?

What about just in general from other authors, who frequently borrow or take on new twists from other authors work. Dungeons and Dragons, for example was in large part inspired by the fantasy writings of the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien. Similarly, a lot of fantasy and horror borrow of great former authors, such as the Cthulhu mythos that has lived on in the minds of other writers well after the death of H.P. Lovecraft who came up with it. Even modern authors borrow extensively from one another, so if this lawsuit succeeds who is going to be able to tell what is a 'public' idea they can use and what isn't? There are numerous sticky situations that will arise should the court set a precedent (that I know of) in favour of the plantiffs.

Although I don't care for Dan Brown in particular as a writer, I do no think that he is particularly guilty of doing anything wrong or worse, just outright plagiarism. If anything all he's guilty of doing is what pretty much every other author in history has done, provide a new take or twist on a story that someone else has told.