By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
LONDON, March 20 -- The "Da Vinci Code" copyright infringement trial, which ended in a London courtroom Monday, combined lively peeks into a celebrity author's lifestyle and hours of legal arcana so numbing that they put a white-wigged attorney to sleep within feet of the judge.
Fans of media-shy author Dan Brown learned that his inspiration to write fiction came on a Tahitian vacation when he read Sidney Sheldon's alien-invasion thriller "The Doomsday Conspiracy." The next day lawyers were arguing about obscure points of religious history, such as whether and why Pepin the Fat murdered Dagobert II, and what Godefroi de Bouillon was really up to during the First Crusade.
In 12 days of testimony over three weeks, authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh tried to prove that Brown stole the idea for his mega-selling novel from a nonfiction book they published in 1982, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." Judge Peter Smith, a man so soft-spoken that his words often seemed to have trouble escaping his thick black mustache, said he hoped to issue a ruling by April 8.
At stake is a multimillion-dollar slice of Brown's pie, which includes sales of nearly 40 million books and an upcoming Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks that, if "Da Vinci's" luck holds, is expected to sell movie tickets and Raisinets from here to the Sea of Tranquillity. (And next week the paperback, a massive 5 million copies, will finally hit U.S. shelves.)
John Baldwin, attorney for Random House U.K., the British publisher of both "Da Vinci" and "Holy Blood" and defendant in the lawsuit, said in his closing statement that the case of Baigent and Leigh is "in tatters." Baldwin said Baigent's testimony was so unreliable that he is either "deluded," "extremely dishonest" or a "complete fool."
Jonathan Rayner James, attorney for Baigent and Leigh, was equally unimpressed with Brown, a clean-cut former prep-school English teacher who traveled from the seclusion of his New Hampshire home to spend nearly three days on the witness stand.
"His evidence should be approached with deep suspicion," James argued in his closing statement, calling Brown uncooperative. He said Brown was evasive about key facts, such as when he purchased a copy of "The Holy Blood," which Baigent and Leigh wrote with a third author, Henry Lincoln, who is not a party to the lawsuit.
In the courtroom, Brown appeared to take great pains to remain polite and patient during lengthy questioning by James, one of Britain's leading copyright specialists.
Brown, who explained his wife, Blythe Brown, does a lot of his research, acknowledged reading "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." He mentions it prominently in "The Da Vinci Code" and on the stand he admitted that he had "reworked" passages from it for use in his book. He said he never copied directly and using the reworked passages is "how you incorporate research into a novel."
Brown said the book was one of dozens he used to research his novel, and he didn't consult it until well after he had formulated the main plot. But James argued that he had a copy of the book much earlier and that it was much more important to the research than Brown admitted.
Smith, the judge, aggressively challenged James's arguments throughout the day Monday and repeatedly questioned the basis for the suit. He asked James how he could argue that Brown was hiding the fact that he read "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" when his characters in "The Da Vinci Code" discuss it admiringly in one scene.
"What's his point in shouting it from the treetops in the text?" Smith asked.
The trial attracted reporters from around the world, and all manner of hangers-on. Bored-looking British teenagers on a school trip came one day, while a steady stream of cheery American tourists -- most of them obvious Brown fans -- made their way through the metal detectors and up to the 10th-floor tribunal in London's ornate Royal Courts of Justice.
On Monday two young men in their early twenties wandered in, one wearing a Las Vegas sweat shirt and the other clutching Frommer's guide to London. With Brown long since departed, they crept back out after 15 minutes of dry-as-dust legal arguing between James and Smith.
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince attended every day of the trial. Brown used a book they wrote, "The Templar Revelation," in his research and mentioned it in his novel. Rather than suing, Picknett and Prince said they sent Brown a thank-you note.
"It was something of an honor, we thought," Picknett said.
Much of the case, and almost all of Monday's final arguments, centered on what can be protected under copyright law, and how extensively an author can use the product of another's research and writing.
James argued that Brown had lifted the central themes of Baigent and Leigh's book. But Baldwin countered that those themes were not protected by copyright law because they were so general, and most of them had been published in other books before Baigent and Leigh's.
Both books involve the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that they had a child and that the bloodline continues to the present. There are also significant differences, including that Baigent and Leigh posit that Jesus did not die on the cross. Brown sticks to the traditional story of Jesus's death.
Brown attended the trial until he finished testifying, but his place at the front table was empty Monday. Leigh and Baigent were still in their familiar seats, Leigh in his regular brown leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, with stringy hair, mutton chops and mustache, looking like he just rode his Harley in from Daytona Beach.
Baigent, whose book "The Jesus Papers" comes out next month, sat next to Leigh wearing a crisp gray suit and tie. In the hall as the last day of the trial started, he said he was ready for it to be over.
"I'm shattered," he said, referring to his exhaustion. "It's just been really tiring."