`Da Vinci' copyright-infringement claim rejected

London judge rules against authors who said book stole their work


LONDON -- A British High Court judge ruled yesterday that similarities between author Dan Brown's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, and an earlier nonfiction work did not constitute copyright infringement.

Judge Peter Smith, pronouncing his verdict in the packed courtroom No. 61 in London's Royal Courts of Justice, dismissed the claim that Brown's novel "appropriated the architecture" and central theme of a 1982 work written by the plaintiffs.

The three-week trial, which saw Brown take the witness stand, attracted huge publicity and at times became a real-life potboiler followed by readers and writers.

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who with Henry Lincoln wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a nonfiction book on religion, had accused Brown of copying their idea that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had married and that their bloodline survives.

Smith ruled that while the language in the two works showed some copying by Brown from the text of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, it did not amount to copyright infringement.

The judge also rejected the claimants' argument that there was a central theme to Holy Blood, Holy Grail that had been lifted by Brown.

Baigent and Leigh set out a 15-point analysis of what they called the central theme of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, noting that their work claims that Jesus Christ was of royal blood and as a Jew would have married and had children.

The book also says Mary Magdalene was his wife and fled the Holy Land after his crucifixion for France, where descendants of her and Jesus founded the Merovingian dynasty. The line of Frankish kings ruled in parts of France and Germany from the fifth to eighth centuries.

Smith noted that even if there was a central theme to the claimants' book, "It is merely an expression of a number of facts and ideas at a very general level." Theirs was historical conjecture rather than original work, he wrote in his 71-page judgment, adding that the points raised by Baigent and Leigh were "artificially taken out of [their book] for the purpose of the litigation."

The judge denied the claimants the right to appeal and ordered them to pay 85 percent of the legal expenses incurred by Brown's publisher, Random House. The first payment of $600,000 toward the fee, which could top $1.75 million, is due by the end of the month.

Smith's ruling erased fears that an adverse decision could have damaged Brown's reputation and delayed the release next month of a multimillion-dollar film based on his book and starring Tom Hanks.

The trial, closely followed by the media and book worlds, was seen as a landmark literary case. The verdict likely came as a relief to writers who use historical reference books for works of fiction.

Brown, whose book has sold 40 million copies to date, did not attend yesterday's court session but released a statement later.

"Today's verdict shows that this claim was utterly without merit," his statement read. "I'm still astonished that these two authors chose to file their suit at all."

Random House chief executive Gail Rebuck applauded the verdict in a statement given outside the gothic-style London courthouse.

"We are pleased that justice and common sense have prevailed," she said. "We never believed this case should have come to court, something which we have tried to explain to the claimants on many occasions."

Leigh denied that he and Baigent had suffered complete defeat.

"I think by its very nature, this case entailed a conflict between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law," he said outside the courthouse. "We lost on the letter of the law. I think we won on the spirit of the law, and to that extent we feel vindicated."

Janet Stobart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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