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Copyright issues: Da Vinci Code case a landmark one

The decision of the Chancellory Division of the London High Court in the ongoing breach of copyright case, revolving around the best-selling yet one of the most controversial novel in recent times, Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, is being keenly watched as it will affect the future of writers and publishing houses in times to come.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 00:56 IST

The decision of the Chancellory Division of the London High Court in the ongoing breach of copyright case, revolving around the best-selling yet one of the most controversial novel in recent times, Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, is being keenly watched as it will affect the future of writers and publishing houses in times to come.

The book is based on a premise that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, their descendants bred with the French Merovingian dynasty and their bloodline continues till today. Another concept which is integral to the plot of the book is that of the ‘Divine Feminine’, which puts forth the proposition that Jesus intended Mary to follow him as the leader of the Church, which allegedly challenges the very root of the Roman Catholic Church whose doctrines (as per Dan Brown’s hypothesis) are inherently based on the idea of male supremacy.

 The book has been widely criticised for its inaccurate depiction regarding Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church. It has also received much of criticism for the manner in which many European historical and cultural facts have been allegedly twisted. The book is a fast-paced thriller which weaves a gripping narrative. However, in recent times, it has been embroiled in a high profile legal controversy. Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, two historians and authors of The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail have filed a breach of copyright suit against publishers Random House.

 Their book puts forth the hypothesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a child by her, staged his own crucifixion and later, escaped to the south of France, where their descendants became the early French kings, the Merovingians! Although, this is the central theme of the book, it is not the only one. They also put forth various theories about The Priory of Sion, Knights Templar and the Roman Catholic Church.

Leigh and Baigent allege that Dan Brown appropriated their ideas and themes as well as the architecture of their book in parts. They allege that Brown relied heavily on their work and copied its basic premise thus infringing their copyright. However, there is no allegation of ‘theft’ of specific parts book or ‘copying’ of any passages.

 The charges brought forth by Leigh and Baigent are not specific in nature and are quite general and even vague. Most of the theories which Dan Brown has put forth in his book are conjectures and hypothesis based on interpretation or, as critics would like to say, misinterpretation of existent historical, religious and cultural works. He has used many resources for his research and has also clearly mentioned The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail as one of them.

The case has brought into sharp focus various issues relating to copyright, as to what constitutes copyright, how it should be defined and what constitutes an infringement of copyright? It touches on the most fundamental aspect of literary, artistic and creative freedom. Can authors take ideas which are already existent, rework, reinterpret them and then present it from their perspective? Can one use the framework and research of another as a basis for expressing ones own idea?

 Under existing laws in the UK, one does not have a copyright over an idea but rather on the expression of it. Copyright is a kind of intellectual property and any piece of original work is automatically ‘copyright protected’ as soon as it comes into existence. It not only protects original works but also the specific form and arrangement of information or the flow of argument, as the case may be. It also protects any work from being reproduced word by word, but when it comes to ideas, concepts and historical information, it is still a grey area. The specific act dealing with copyright in the UK is the Copyright Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

The Holy Blood, the Holy Grail is a non-fiction book and the authors are historians. It therefore, claims to have put forth premises which are true. The Da Vinci Code on the other hand is a novel, a work of fiction, a thriller. Hence, another question which comes to mind is whether one can copyright history? Does one have a copyright over historical resources/hypothesis, legends, myths, folklore, cultural and religious texts? Can a writer take another’s speculations (be it historical) and then use it for creating something new?

The issue at hand holds serious implications as far as the literary arena is concerned. All fictional writers have used various factual information, premises, conjectures, myths, historical texts, etc., as a resource or inspiration to create their own expression or body of work.

This, however, is not the first case against Dan Brown. Last August, Brown won a court ruling against another writer, Lewis Perdue, who claimed Da Vinci Code copied elements of two of his novels, Daughter of God and The Da Vinci Legacy. The conclusion in this case by George B.Daniels, the district judge, was that “In order to succeed on a claim of copyright infringement, two elements must be proven: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and 2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Any slightly similar elements are on the level of generalized or otherwise unprotectible ideas.” This is how the case was decided in the US. In the UK, on April 7, 2006, a judge at the High Court in London also rejected the allegations and said, “Dan Brown has not infringed copyright. None of this amounts to copying The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” The decision will affect the future of writers and publishing houses for times to come.

Meanwhile, Baigent and Leigh, who published The Holy Blood... in 1982, also with Random House, now face a legal bill of over $1.75 million. However, sales of their book have shot up with publicity of the case.

The writer is an advocate at the Allahabad High Court