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Dan Brown sued for plagiarism

14 November 2005

When Dan Brown - showing great confidence - left his teaching job to write full-time because he'd read a Sydney Sheldon novel and felt that he could do better, no-one would have predicted great success was in store for him. His first few novels did respectably, but it was not until he produced The Da Vinci Code, with secret myths embedded in a fast-paced thriller plot, that he hit the jackpot. With 8 million copies sold worldwide, 2.7 million of them in the UK, the book has been a huge success and has been translated into 42 languages.

Using secret conspiracy theories which have been around for some time, Brown had managed to hook millions of readers with what Mark Lawson has called 'irritatingly gripping tosh', a fictional version of what used to be known in the publishing business as a 'crank' book. Hidden knowledge uncovered, the tantalising idea of something suppressed but possibly true, is an important element in what has compelled those millions of readers, many of them people who only read an occasional book. And plenty of them have told their friends about The Da Vinci Code, thus creating a fantastic world-of-mouth buzz about it. Brown's plot is highly implausible, but the action moves so fast that there's no time for the reader to reflect on this.

So far, so good, and Mr Brown and his publishers have been very happy people. But now, over the horizon, have come the authors of the original non-fiction book expounding the theories on which The Da Vinci Code is based. This was the most successful of all crank books, published in 1982, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Embarrassingly, the book was published by the same publisher as Dan Brown in the UK, but that has not stopped the authors, Baigent and Leigh, from suing Brown for plagiarism and the case will be heard in the UK High Court in February. The ideas in the original book, particularly those relating to the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married, came to France and started a royal bloodline which continues to the present day, are certainly plot elements in the book, but can they be shown to have originated in the earlier study?

Quite a lot rides on this financially. If Baigent and Leigh win, they will press for an injunction to stop sales of the book and presumably claim a percentage of the massive royalties earned to date. This case could stop sales of one of the most successful books published in recent years, and also halt the UK release of the forthcoming film.