London Lawyers Turn Into Code-Breakers
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 7:12 PM
LONDON -- Parts of London's legal community ground to a virtual halt Thursday with lawyers turning into aspiring code-breakers as they tried to decipher a hidden message inserted into "The Da Vinci Code" trial judgment.
With the revelation that Judge Peter Smith inserted a secret code of his own into the April 7 judgment that cleared "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown in his copyright infringement case, lawyers have been hustling to solve the puzzle.
"The chat in the legal community is that not one billable hour has been done today," lawyer Mark Stephens said Thursday, speaking on his cell phone from the back of a black cab. "Life in London has ground to a halt because everyone _ barristers, solicitors, partners, managing partners, legal secretaries _ is working on deciphering it."
The mystery began when lawyers pondering the judgment realized that italics had been placed in strange spots throughout the 71-page document.
The first is found in the first paragraph of the 360-paragraph document. The letter "s" in the word "claimants" is italicized. In the next paragraph, "claimant" is spelled with an italicized "m" and so on.
The letters spell out "Smithy code" in the first seven paragraphs, offering a play on the judge's name.
The cipher is a mixture of the italicized font code found in the "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" _ whose authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh unsuccessfully sued Brown's publisher, Random House Inc., for copyright infringement _ and the code which the characters in Brown's book unravel.
Smith offers a reference to his code in paragraph 52.
"The key to solving the conundrum posed by this judgment is in reading HBHG and DVC," he wrote.
Since the code was discovered earlier this week, lawyers, cryptographers and "The Da Vinci Code" fans have worked furiously to decipher the mystery message.
"It's so short," U.S. cryptographer Elonka Dunin, of St. Charles, Mo., said of Smith's code. "It's only a tiny snippet. If it were a few pages of code, it'd already be cracked."
Dunin said this type of code has no word divisions and is normally 75 to 100 characters. Smith's code offers roughly 30 cryptic letters.
But despite her frustration, Dunin said the judge has left some clues.
The New York Times reported that Smith sent an e-mail to a reporter at the newspaper that offered a hint. It said the code referred to his entry in this year's edition of Britain's "Who's Who," which has references to his wife, Diane, his three children, British naval officer Jackie Fisher, and the Titanic Historical Society _ among other things.
"With the crypto community's attention turning toward this code, it'll be cracked within 24 hours," Dunin said.
Jim Sanborn, a Washington-based artist who created the famed cryptographic sculpture "Kryptos" for the Central Intelligence Agency in 1990, explained that "The Da Vinci Code" has popularized codes and code-breaking for the masses.
"It's become institutionalized and, with the Internet and Dan Brown, there's been an explosion," Sanborn said. He said he has not seen the judge's code, but conceded he still mulls over a series of cryptic messages Brown left on his book's dust jacket about Sanborn's artwork.
Stephens, a lawyer specializing in media law and copyright issues, said he was not at all surprised that Smith _ who was one of the most entertaining part of the sometimes dry trial _ had inserted a code into his judgment.
"He knew this was a judgment that would be of enormous interest," Stephens said, adding that Smith likely added the code to make his work appeal to the sort of people who are keen on the twists and turns of Brown's best seller. "So I think he's playing to people who like intrigue."