Monday, June 26, 2006

DVC Plagiarism Trial Not So Over After All

In late May, an item in the Daily Express’s ‘Hickey’ column announced that a planned book on the DVC-HBHG plagiarism trial had been abandoned as the publishers, Virgin Books, were unable to get it completed for their planned deadline of the film’s release on the 19th. I thought at the time this was a pity, for the trial looked at important issues of interest to writers and publishers, issues which got scant notice in the press coverage (which I collected) at the time. Journalists seem to focus on the judge’s (passing and non-committal) remark regarding the ‘conspiracy theory’ the trial was a publiclity stunt to promote both books (both being published here by Random House UK). The major press coverage of the trial ended here as the earlier fear that fiction writers would suddenly be held to account for using nonfiction sources receded. That is, ‘copycat’ suits might appear due to the case’s high profile in the international press.
Attention was then diverted to the revelation of the ‘Smithy Code’ -- Justice Peter Smith’s self-regarding drollery of sneaking into the text of his judgement a coded message re his own pet interest - dreadnoughts (vintage battleships). After this was cracked, we heard how the two unsuccessful plaintiffs, HBHG co-authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, were asking for time to pay the usual stupendous legal fees involved, and being warned by the judge they faced being made bankrupt if they missed the deadline. (What lawyers euphemistically refer to as their costs came to around £1,850,000. The judge knocked 15% off the plaintiffs’ bill on the grounds he didn’t believe Dan Brown’s testimony as to when he read HBHG. He also made The Lawyer, a newspaper for UK lawyers, pay Random House’s legal attendance fees over a contempt of court when they published his draft ruling an hour ahead of the verdict as "a worldwide exclusive.")
Now it seems these underlying rights-of-use issues may get an airing after all. Phenomena Magazine has been contacted by the plaintiffs to say that they have paid their legal debt in full, and that the Court of Appeal has granted them leave to appeal. This permission was based on the judge’s saying in his 36,000-word judgement (viewable here) that there had been use of their research. (He ruled this was irrelevant on the basis their claim was too generalised and muddled in terms of copyright law.) Dan Brown, in his own 25,000-word written submission made as part of the defence statement (viewable here) had claimed he and his wife Blythe, who acts as his researcher, took ideas and research from a series of authors. He said he got the grail-bloodline idea from five different books, and other ideas from yet more books in the genre … all of which are post-HBHG.
Was it Oscar Wilde who said if you copy from one author it’s theft, but if you copy from many it’s research? But perhaps that’s too little simplistic a take on matters. For the judge also made remarks drawing attention to a particular problem in this genre. He said that HBHG itself was not all that original in that it was partly based on earlier work (1970s BBC documentaries, the ‘Dossiers Secrets,’ etc). On the other hand, he noted how authors like Margaret Starbird (The Goddess In the Gospels) were themselves inspired by HBHG. (He cites her preface where she acknowledges this.) Yet ultimately he ruled that HBHG had no ‘central theme’ to copy. Courts Of Appeal are meant to look more at matters of law (i.e the application of legal principles) rather than fact (findings as to the evidence itself). But the case is complicated by whether the sensational claim (the real ‘central theme’) in HBHG which made it a 1980s bestseller (its ‘historical conjecture’ the grail =sang+real = royal bloodline of Mary Magdalene surviving in French dynasty) can be itself classed as historical fact or fiction.