April 9th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

I Was Wrong about The DaVinci Code

I hadn't written about it in public, but the truth might as well be told: I was rooting for Baigent and Leigh in the DaVinci Code lawsuit. And now that the verdict has come down and my preferred side lost, I have been persuaded that I was wrong and that no, Dan Brown really did deserve to win this case. It wasn't an easy sell, but I admit it: I was wrong to wish otherwise.

I've never actually read The DaVinci Code and I probably never will, for the same reason that I can never make myself read more than a couple of pages of Alan Moore's From Hell before putting it down out of boredom: I read the original. When I picked up The DaVinci Code the first time, to see what the fuss was all about, I got less than half a dozen pages into it before I got angry and disgusted. I felt as if I'd read those first few pages, almost word for word, before. I was enraged to think that Brown thought he could get away with such a blatant piece of plagiarism. So to check my hypothesis, I flipped through the book, and yes, every page I turned to was lifted, almost verbatim, from the same book as the first few pages. So to double-check my hypothesis, I started reading detailed reviews, synopses, and other analyses of The DaVinci Code, and none of them contained word one that would dissuade me from my first impression that Dan Brown lifted almost the entire book, word for word, from a previous best seller, for crying out loud, called Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Having read and liked that book the first time, I saw no reason to reward open plagiarism for the boring "privilege" of reading the same book again with most of the proper names changed around.

For those of you who haven't read HBHG, a synopsis: the authors were historians who stumbled upon some previously uncatalogued obscure pamphlets in the French national library that related to some obscure Renaissance-era organization called the Priory of Sion. They were not allowed to remove the pamphlets (no surprise), and each time they came back to check there was a slightly different set of pamphlets there. What they eventually figured out was that there was a modern group called the Priory of Sion, whose members believe (or claim to believe), like so many clubs, that the organization goes back much farther than that. There was an argument going on within the organization about whether or not to go public with their "secret," and those who wanted to go public were leaking information to the authors for the purpose of going around the majority in the organization who thought that it would be better not to go public.

The "secret" was that this obscure European supper club and charitable society for rich upper class men is at least theoretically dedicated to maintaining and updating the genealogies of the Merovingian kings of early France, to be able to know at all times who would be the heir to the Merovingian throne if the Merovingian line were restored. Eventually, the leakers worked up the courage to reveal to the authors the theoretical reason why they have this obscure hobby: the Priory believes that first of the Merovingian kings was a literal descendant of Jesus by Mary Magdalene, and thus divinely entitled to rule the world. What was driving the Priory's internal debate was European unification. The minority within the Priory believed that as the nations of Europe moved closer to unification, they would be better served if the combined European government were a constitutional monarchy than a pure democracy, and to that end they wanted the Priory to go public with their bloodlines and nominate this obscure young rich guy who just happened to be Jesus' lineal heir as the King of Europe. As an afterword to the book, Baigent et al devote a couple of chapters to addressing the question, "Could it be true?" They conclude that it is theoretically possible, but far from proven, that Jesus had an heir. They conclude that it is profoundly unlikely, but not impossible, that the first Merovingian king was one of his descendants, or may have at least privately thought that he was. They conclude that it is by no means unlikely that some rich guys might have this hobby of tracing the Merovingian geneaology; and after all, when the Soviet Union fell, a similar group dedicated to the hobby of figuring out who the legitimate Romanoff heir would be made their own constitutional monarchy bid.

Most medieval and Renaissance historians think that Baigent and Leigh are bald-faced liars, and the guy they fingered as the Merovingian heir reacted, when confronted by reporters, as if this was the first he'd ever heard of it and he thought the idea of him becoming King of Europe was pretty darned funny. This was all roughly 25 years ago.

What brought me around, against my will, to Brown's side in the lawsuit was two things, a point of law and a matter of fact, neither of which were previously familiar to me. The point of law is an obscure (to me) difference between the rules of plagiarism and the rules of copyright infringement. While authors are not legally permitted, under copyright, to take somebody else's work of fiction, change some of the proper names, and reissue it as their own, no such protection is afforded under copyright law to works of history or fact. So even if it were proven that Brown had put no creative work at all into The DaVinci Code, even if he had been guilty of the blatant plagiarism I had mistakenly accused him of in my mind and in casual conversations, he would have been totally in the right under copyright law. (As at least one commentator suggested, since most historians consider Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be a work of fiction, all Baigent and Leigh would have had to have done to have won on that point was admit that they were bald-faced liars. Unlikely, since they've made a cottage industry of occasional sequels, at least one of which was actually kind of good.)

The other point, the point of fact, was interesting but to me deeply surreal. In his deposition, Dan Brown set out to show exactly which elements of The DaVinci Code weren't plagiarized from Baigent and Leigh. The surreal part, as documented by Bryan Curtis a couple of weeks ago on Slate.com, is that he cheerfully admitted (and entered as evidence) that it's the same stuff that he puts in all of his novels. He testified that he has figured out a formula for writing best selling thrillers about obscure scientific or historical points, a set of elements and plot points and stock characters that he has used in all of his best sellers, and that they're all in his book but not in Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln's. Well, OK, then -- I admit, I hadn't read the book closely enough to see those differences, but now that they're pointed out, I concede that they're there. So far as I can tell, I must grudgingly admit that he is not only not guilty of copyright infringement but he's not even (quite) the blatant plagiarist that I thought he was.

I'm probably still not going to read the book or see the movie, though.