October 30, 2005

Dan Brown - Plagiarist or Student of History?

I hate to break up a running series of articles (on abiogenesis), but I just ran across something that I found entertaining. It seems that Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, has had a lawsuit filed against him for copyright infringement. The authors of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (HBHG) have apparently suffered in the shadows of Brown's success long enough. You see, the entire premise of Brown's book — that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child by her, and that Mary is the true "Grail" — is based upon the "investigative" work of the authors of HBHG. Brown even gives the nod to this work by both mentioning it in his pages and by (not so) cryptically naming one of his main characters (Leigh Teabing) after its authors, Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent.

Now, HBHG offers these ideas about the life of Jesus and Mary as the "real" story. This is supposedly the authentic history that the Church has suppressed all these years. And even though Brown's book is a fictional murder mystery, he claims that the historical backdrop for the story is grounded in "fact" (which he personally claims to believe). So, if the borrowed content in question is a matter of "history," then what is the problem? Can somebody be sued for infringement if they build upon someone else's historical findings? Could the filmmakers of "Titanic" and "Braveheart" be sued by the historians? I'm no attorney but I'm thinking, not.

This seems like an interesting dilemma to me. I'm sure that Leigh and Baigent meant for us to take their theories as historical truth, however, with this lawsuit they are implying that Brown has simply infringed upon their creative (read, "fictional") ideas. So, which is it: fact or fiction? This would be an interesting case to follow on the off chance that the court thinks to press the distinction. But I think the very fact that the authors of HBHG filed charges against Brown speaks of their intuitive understanding of which domain their claims fall into.

11 Comments:

At 10/30/2005 10:46 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

That Magdalene was married to Jesus and they had a child is a hypothesis -- a theory. Every theory is creative in a sense, including factual ones. When someone comes up with a theory, no matter how speculative or factual, it's obvious the inventor of the theory wants credit for it. In this case, I suspect the authors of HBHG are upset that Dan Brown's book, which relies on their work so much, got so much success and they got nothing in return. They probably want some sort of royalties. Whether this holds up in court is up to the judge, but I don't think the case says anything about whether or not the authors of HBHG think their theory has any real veracity: the authors just feel left out. They would feel the same way whether they believed their theory was true or not. If someone in 1916 wrote a story of which the Theory of Relativity was a central theme (e.g. an astronaut travels in outer space and returns to find that all his friends and family have aged while he remains in relative youth), and made millions of dollars off this, Einstein might have taken exception to this, as only one year before he had presented this theory to the public, and at the time it was still highly controversial. The Magdalene theory shares the same traits -- it's fairly recent, someone besides the authors made millions off it, and it is highly controversial. But that doesn't mean Einstein or the authors of HBHG would think their theory bunk by suing the one who got money off it.

 
At 10/31/2005 7:13 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Dale, you explain what might motivate the lawsuit, but the fact that the lawsuit has enough legal merit for a lawyer to take it on, and if a judge also thinks so, then it implies that it's fiction.
As Paul says, there is no law (that I'm aware of) that would be able to enforce a copyright on a scientific or historical theory. The law in effect here is one against plagiarism, and Dan Brown properly cites the authors who have brought suit.

 
At 10/31/2005 9:51 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I agree. As long as he sited them properly in his book, there is no way that the lawsuit could be valid, unless their book is acknowledged to be fiction.

Otherwise, Isaac Newton could have sued anyone who wrote about someone falling down for copyright infringement, and Microsoft could sue anyone who wrote about how to program in VS.net, or how to use Excel...

 
At 10/31/2005 12:39 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

I think what you two are saying actually supports my original point.

You have shown the only means by which the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail can sue Dan Brown is by claiming their work was fiction and Brown plagiarized it. I don't disagree with that.

This supports my point that the fact the authors are suing Brown does not necessarily imply that they, themselves, believe their book is a work of fiction, which was Paul's main point. As you've shown, claiming their book was a work of fiction may be the only way they can take Brown to court, so it says nothing of their personal beliefs. They could believe their book or not believe their book, but they'd be suing the same way right now regardless.

 
At 10/31/2005 1:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I agree that they could be suffering from cognitive dissonance. I would just love to see these presuppositions get drug out on the table for all to see, and I'd like the lawsuit to succeed only by virtue of their grudging admission that they were simply engaging in creative imagination. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have trial over The Da Vinci Code to determine if it's based on fiction or fact?

 
At 10/31/2005 1:15 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

You know, Paul, maybe that's just what's going to happen if this goes to court. Dan Brown's defense team might claim that HBHG doesn't have a case because their work is factual, while the authors of HBHG will have to argue that it was just creative writing.

 
At 10/31/2005 7:17 PM, Blogger Vman said...

Dan Brown is going to lose, he ripped off a fictional story. That's just plaigirism. If he cited a historical source, it would be fine. But stealing from a work of fiction is definitely a crime.

 
At 10/31/2005 10:11 PM, Blogger Paul said...

But Holy Blood, Holy Grail is not a fictional story like The Da Vinci Code.

 
At 11/01/2005 8:58 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Aside for historical inaccuracies and stuff, is this a good book? I usually like to read books that are popular, controversial, or whatever, becuase I like to know what the fuss is all about, but I haven't read this one. Is it worth reading just for the entertainment value?

 
At 11/02/2005 8:15 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, I haven't read it either but I have yet to hear anyone who's read it that hasn't enjoyed it. And for a responsible Christian it should be mandatory reading simply because the misconceptions it fosters are going to become a part of our cultural mythology for at least a generation to come.

It's on my must read list, just haven't gotten there yet.

 
At 11/02/2005 9:23 AM, Blogger Paul said...

It is an engaging and fast-moving story, though not particularly sophisticated for this genre. The only problem is that you will have to suspend your disbelief at points -- especially during a long scene around the middle of the book where the lead character, Sophie, gets a "re-education" on church history. If you are a student of theology and church history (even mildly), then at times it will be equivelant to a scientist watching a sci-fi movie where the astronauts walk around on astroids in full gravity with their helmets off.

And I agree that it is a must-read because of its cultural impact. Having read the book has opened the door for me to several deep conversations with non-Christians; and I've seen unschooled Christians acquire an interest in church history because of the book.

 

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