Author, like many of us, is copycat, and that’s good thing
The untold secret in the current U.K. breach of copyright suit against Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is that this isn’t the first time he’s borrowed someone else’s ideas or experiences for his own work. In fact, he’s done it his entire life.
He got the idea for Digital Fortress, his first novel when he was teaching English at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. One day, the Secret Service showed up on campus hours after a student sent an e-mail threatening President Clinton’s life. Brown took that nugget and built an entire book around it. The kid could rightly sue. After all, Brown eventually made a pile of money from the book.
Before that, Brown wrote a couple of novelty books: 187 Men to Avoid, and The Bald Book. For Pete’s sake, these aren’t original; he could have penned The Bald Book after perusing a few brochures from the local Hair Club for Men, and 187 Men was nothing more than a warmed-over version of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.
But wait, there’s more! As an aspiring singer/songwriter, Brown wrote all the songs on his CDs, and every one could be compared with other pop hits. His song Shed My Skin? Obviously, he stole it from a line in Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit Sledgehammer. And he lifted a quote verbatim from a Winston Churchill speech for Peace in Our Time.
What a thief! By now, you’re probably convinced the guy’s a fraud. Not only should the judge should throw the book at him but Oprah needs to haul his sorry butt on her show and unleash her venom on him. If he doesn’t show, she’ll just tar and feather him in absentia.
Before you sign up for the lynch mob, consider this:
Brown is just doing what we all do every day, and what we’ve all been trained to do through years of schooling: Take an idea, go to the library or online to look for facts that support or deny that idea or examples to enhance it then write your paper, letter, book or song.
If there still is such a thing as an original idea, I’d like to hear about it. Turn on any TV show or open any newspaper, magazine or book, and chances are that most stories are there because the writer, editor or producer saw it somewhere else first.
If the judge rules that Brown did indeed plagiarize from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book that they’ve profited from handsomely, needless to say research as we know it, for writers, students, professionals, anyone who relies on any form of media, will be forever changed.
The worst-case scenario is that a flurry of unfounded accusations will emanate from slighted creative types everywhere, with the “authors” of overheard conversations suing writers for “copying” their words and ideas. This prospect is much more frightening than James Frey’s sin of thinking his fiction was no different from nonfiction. In the aftermath, the only thing that’s changed in the publishing industry is that the fact-checking calvary is now called in whenever a manuscript is tagged as a “memoir.”
Industry wags figure the plaintiffs’ chances at winning are about as good as Dan Brown’s fifth novel being published this year, an extreme long shot since a manuscript is nowhere in sight. Publishing insiders pegged the trial as a cheap publicity stunt from the start, launched only to attract attention for Holy Blood and for Baigent’s next book, The Jesus Papers, to be published April 1, just in time for the worldwide release of The Da Vinci Code movie in mid-May.
In fact, it quickly came to light that the movie is the real reason for the lawsuit. According to Patrick Janson-Smith, a former British publisher who acquired both books, Baigent and Leigh first considered suing Brown a year after his novel was published. But when the movie deal with Ron Howard was announced, their plans for litigation roared into high gear as they surmised that the odds of their own book becoming a movie were getting dimmer all the time. They obviously thought a thickly written dry academic tome would make a more captivating film than a thriller specifically written to keep readers turning pages long into the night.
The fact of the matter is that Baigent and Leigh didn’t pluck the premise for Holy Blood, Holy Grail out of thin air, since it’s been written about and bandied about for centuries. They read about it somewhere else first. Just like Dan Brown. No one ó artist or not ó lives in a vacuum. We learn from and are inspired by the ideas of others, which we then absorb and convert into our own. Then someday, someone else will hopefully be likewise inspired by our ideas.
Perhaps Chilean novelist Isabel Allende said it best in her book Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses: “Copying one author is plagiarism. Copying many is research.”
Rogak is the author of “The Man Behind the DaVinci Code: An Unauthorized Biography of Dan Brown.”