Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Da Vinci Code trial

Up until recently, I hadn't been following the lawsuit filed in the UK against Dan Brown's publishers, but it may be worth watching closely. For those of you who haven't been keeping up all along, two of the three authors of a nonfiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, claim that in his novel The Da Vinci Code, Brown used the "architecture" of Holy Blood--namely, its argument that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that the couple had children, and that there was a conspiracy to keep this secret--in creating his work of fiction. Brown did apparently use Holy Blood as one of his sources, and a character in the novel even mentions the nonfiction work.

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, and probably won't be doing so, not on ideological grounds but because the whole thing sounds sort of silly to me. Moreover, it's a thriller, and I don't read thrillers--riding on the expressway surrounded by SUV's being driven by people who are chatting on their cell phones while traveling 75 miles per hour is enough thrill for me, thank you.

But whatever one thinks of the merits, literary or otherwise, of The Da Vinci Code, the outcome of this trial will be of interest to writers of historical fiction, at least to those who bother to do research. If a novelist uses a nonfiction writer's conclusion--particularly a new or a controversial conclusion--as a jumping-off point for his own work, will he be exposing himself to liability? What if the conclusion is only a small component of the fictional work? What if the conclusion is the meat and bones of the fictional work? Will the novelist have to pay nonfiction writers for the right to use the fruits of their research? What about nonfiction writers who build on the foundation of research of others?

Lots to ponder here.

5 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

I don't think there will be a problem with using academic research. What those HBHG authors present is aimed at a wider readership and without any real academic foundation for their methods and 'conclusions'. They wanted to sell a book from the beginning (and they can thank Brown for the rise in sales), not primarily add knowledge/ideas to the stock of - still inclomplete - information we have about history.

What may prove tricky is biographies like the ony by Weir Alianore mentions on her blog - books that are decently researched but want to reach a broader audience than a few students. How close could a novel about Isabella be to Weir's book without plagiarism, what information could the author have gathered from other avaliable sources (the same Weir used) and what is her very own part in the biography besides the words as such?

BTW A lot of the 'information' the HBHG authors use in their book has been around before. I have read the Da Vinci Code and didn't find much I didn't already know from other sources, and I don't have read HBHG.

half_cent said...

I don't believe anyone born on the Earth in the last 10,000 years can honestly lay claim to a totally original thought. People can say they made something up but can you really say that you were not influenced by reading or hearing something someplace at some time in your life? No, I think not. For example Jesus marrying Mary M. as a notion has been around long before either of these authors wrote their books. Think about it, whether it's true or not everyone back in "the day" probably thought they (j and M) were gettin it on!
I think the authors of Holy Blood already received their 15 minutes and they need to shut up!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Well, the Holy Blood guys have certainly done well from their lawsuit! Yesterday when I looked at their Amazon ranking, they were 28.

Carla said...

I don't suppose Random House have minded all the free publicity, nor the lawyers their hefty fees.
Most of the commentators I've seen who seem to know something about UK copyright law have argued that there's no case to answer because one can't copyright an idea. If the verdict supports that it will have been a storm in a literary teacup (but a profitable one for the publisher and lawyers). Have to wait for the result of the case to see if that analysis is right.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

"...will he be exposing himself to liability?"

Only if the book becomes an international bestseller. Otherwise, no one's going to bother to press charges.

I agree with half-cent, above. With 6 billion people on Earth, for each one-in-a-million idea you have, there are 6,000 others running around with the same thought.

And, I think Carla is onto something. Maybe this was all just a marketing stunt for Random House.