Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mona Lisa smile

As the May 17 release date for The Da Vinci Code draws near, Team Grazer is no doubt breathing a little easier now that a London judge has tossed a copyright infringement suit against the book's author, Dan Brown. Although I doubt even a loss in the English courts would have affected the United States release, the ruling is mostly good news for writers from an intellectual property perspective.

The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book purporting to show evidence that Jesus Christ did not actually die on the cross but survived to produce offspring with Mary Magdalene. Not having read "Da Vinci" myself, I can only rely on the reports that its subject matter deals with much the same theory. I did, however, read the earlier work about 20 years ago and seem to recall it was interesting in the way that JFK, RFK, and MLK conspiracy theories were interesting to me when I wanted to believe in the mysterious over the mundane.

Apparently, the theories were of some interest to Dan Brown as well. He admitted at trial that he relied on "Holy Blood" in researching the background for his own fictional work. The authors of that book, to the extent that its contents could be construed as historical facts, then sought to claim infringement on the grounds that Brown's use of their "facts" amounted to an improper copying of the book's central theme or "architecture" in his creating of "Da Vinci." Experts on both sides of the pond judged this "novel" theory of infringement a loser from the start and the dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone following the case closely.

From the screenwriter's perspective, even if not controlling on American courts, the decision is to be applauded because it reinforces the well-settled rule that facts and ideas are not entitled to copyright protection. As Justice Peter Smith wrote for the High Court here: "It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way 'The Da Vinci Code' has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright." Especially where the diligent screenwriter will consult a variety of historical sources to research their subject matter and strive to be as accurate as possible, it would likely have a chilling effect for the authors of the consulted works to be able to then claim infringement. Not an unexpected result, but still good to know that some things in the legal world endure like Da Vinci's painting.


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