Brown wins 'Da Vinci Code' plagiarism battle

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From pedlar of sacrilege about Christ's sex life to crafter of clunky dialogue and implausible plots, Dan Brown has been labelled many things since the success of The Da Vinci Code. But at least he is not a plagiarist.

Sitting in Court 61 of the High Court yesterday, Mr Justice Peter Smith offered the world's highest paid author the solace of a sliver of academic integrity by throwing out a claim that he stole the plot for his international best-seller from a non-fiction book written 24 years ago.

The authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG) were told that there was no evidence that Mr Brown had infringed their copyright, and thus dented their bank balances, by appropriating the central theme of their book for his unashamedly populist pot boiler, which has sold 40 million copies worldwide.

Instead, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the HBHG authors who brought the case, were last night facing a legal bill of about £2m, after they were ordered to pay their own costs and 85 per cent of those of Mr Brown's publisher, Random House - put at £1.3m.

It is likely Mr Leigh and Mr Baigent (who make an appearance in The Da Vinci Code by dint of having an anagram of their names used for a chief villain, Leigh Teabing) will need every penny of the extra royalties earned by the ten-fold increase in sales of HBHG provoked by the three-week court case. The first instalment, £350,000, must be paid by 5 May.

The case had turned on the allegation that Mr Brown, worth an estimated £250m, lifted the key theory of HBHG, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and left a traceable bloodline via the Merovingian dynasty of French kings. It was claimed that the reclusive Mr Brown was effectively lying when he insisted his attention had only been brought to HBHG by his wife and researcher, Blythe, in the closing stages of writing The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.

But after wading through both books and legal arguments filled with enough claims of betrayal and pseudo-historical conjecture to fill one of Mr Brown's own novels, the judge ruled that the authors of HBHG were themselves guilty, contriving their case by "selecting" a number of facts and ideas from the book for the purpose of the court case.

The legal victory for Mr Brown, who emerged from his New England home to give evidence in the trial on subjects from his research methods to the fact that he intersperses his writing with frequent press-ups, removes the possibility that the release in May of the £110m film version of The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, would have to be cancelled or postponed.

Mr Brown, who was not present for the judgment, said he remained "astonished" that the case had been brought at all. The 41-year-old author, who was attacked by Christian groups for suggesting that Jesus had a family, and barracked by established novelists, said: "A novelist must be free to draw appropriately from historical works without fear that he'll be sued and forced to stand in a courtroom facing a series of allegations that call into question his very integrity as a person."

Although cleared of infringing copyright, Mr Brown did not escape all criticism. The judge found that he had copied some of the text from HBHG, and his claim not to have used his well-thumbed copy of the book early on in the process of writing The Da Vinci Code was untenable.

Witheringly, the judge said he had not been asked to rule on the author's "skill and reputation".

Mr Justice Smith said: "Fortunately it is not part of my judgment to assess the literary worth of the books or even the truth behind them. I suppose in the world of publication, 40 million buyers cannot be wrong."

Outside the court, Mr Leigh claimed he and Mr Baigent had won a moral, if not legal, victory.

He said: "By its very nature this case entails a conflict between the spirit and the letter of the law. I think we lost on the letter. We won on the spirit and to that extent we are vindicated."

The last laugh, however, is likely to rest with Mr Brown. The author, who is renowned for his meticulous research of the places where he locates his novels, gave a hint that the Royal Courts of Justice may appear in one of his next works. He said: "I found the London High Court building to be a magnificent example of neo-Gothic architecture; I look forward to returning soon to view it from a vantage point other than the witness stand."