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The defense Dan Brown didn't use

Tom Jackson • Jun 24, 2013 at 10:17 AM

If you pay attention to pop culture or conspiracy theories, you will have noticed that Michael Baigent died. The New York Times obit is here.

You may not recognize the name, but if you read fiction at all, it's likely you've come across his work. Baigent's book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," written with Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, advanced the sensational theory that Jesus married and had children and that his descendants have played a role in the history of Europe. "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" was the basis for Dan Brown's mega selling thriller, "The Da Vinci Code." Brown, once again atop the bestseller list, didn't hide his admiration for "Holy Blood"; the character "Leigh Teabing" has Leigh's last name and an anagram of Baigent's name.

Although Brown's novel did nothing but good for his source material, sparking renewed interest (and sales) for "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," Baigent and Leigh (but not Lincoln), sued Brown for plagiarism, alleging he "stole" their book. 

The judge ruled in Brown's favor. His reasoning was interesting (and, I think, correct): Stories can be copyrighted, but facts cannot be. "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" purports to be a work of history. (My copy of the book, which I haven't read yet, has a long bibliography and many end notes.) So Brown has the right to use "facts" from the book, as he could use any book of history, in composing his fictional narrative.

In other words, I, too, could write a novel drawing upon the claim that Jesus got married and had kids. But it better not be about a Bowling Green State University professor named Landon Robertson who uncovers a vast conspiracy in modern France.

One point that was missed in all of the coverage of the lawsuit is that "The Da Vinci Code" was actually the second novel to make use of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."  In 1985, American writer Robert Anton Wilson published his historical novel, "The Widow's Son," set in 18th-century Europe. "The Widow's Son"  incorporates the main idea of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" and has footnotes that cite the book. Wilson was not sued after he published his novel, perhaps because it didn't make a lot of money. 

This could have been one of Dan Brown's defenses, but one of Brown's lawyers told me last year that Wilson's book was never brought up during the trial.

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