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Friday, October 15, 2004

The Knife Fight

Jared Olar just returned this to my attention, so it's time to analyze it. An article in the September 28th edition of The Australian indicates that Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, are suing Dan Brown for copyright infringement. They accuse Danny Boy of having stolen their whole jigsaw puzzle plot. It should be an absolutely easy case for them to win. But that’s not the funny part of this whole escapade. The lawsuit is hilarious primarily because their greed has forced everyone involved in this farce to show their hands.

You see, while fiction is subject to copyright law, facts are not. If I wrote a novel based on the James Bond character created by Ian Fleming, for instance, I would be violating Ian Fleming’s copyright, and his estate could sue me for copyright infringement. However, if I wrote a story about the life of William Jefferson Clinton, former President Clinton could not sue me for copyright infringement. I might get sued for libel (the written version of slander) if I mis-stated the facts, but that is about it. He cannot copyright the facts concerning his own life.

Now, let’s say you took existing information or discovered new factual evidence and provided a totally novel interpretation of the facts of his life, thereby completely explaining why Slick Willy has women problems and feels our pain. You wrote an outstanding article or book concerning this idea, but it failed to gain wide circulation. I saw your theory and based my biography of Clinton on your interpretation without giving you any credit. Have I violated your copyright?

Not at all. I am a plagiarist, but I haven’t violated your copyright because you have no copyright on facts
either. All you’ve done is come up with a new theory that covers the facts – and I stole it without accreditation. But I don’t need to accredit you. After all, I could have looked at the facts myself and independently arrived at the same conclusion through simple logical analysis, and you would have a hard time proving otherwise.

In any case, while I may be dead guilty of plagiarism, and you may well be able to prove it, the most you can do is (justifiably) ruin my sterling reputation by proving I’m a plagiarist. You can’t recover monetary damages from me for plagiarism because plagiarism is only a crime when I’m stealing fictional material or lifting direct and lengthy quotes from your factual material without in any way acknowledging that you wrote it. Plagiarism is not a crime if I’m stealing facts. It may not be wise, but it isn’t a crime. That’s why journalists get fired for plagiarism, but they rarely get sued for it, while novelists and playwrights sue for plagiarism but only as the basis for proving copyright infringement.

But Baigent isn’t suing for plagiarism. He’s suing for copyright infringement. He's not alleging that Brown lifted whole passages of his book verbatim. Instead, he's suing on the bases that that Brown stole his "jigsaw puzzle," his plot. By the very fact that both sides are gearing up for litigation, both sides implicitly acknowledge that they wrote works of pure fiction. Baigent is suing because Brown stole his fictional plot-line and used it in his own work of fiction. Ah, how the worm turns! Brown amassed a reputed 140 billion English pounds by repeating over and over, "Why are you upset at my book? It’s just fiction." All those quotes will now come back to him and render his bank account like unto the vast sandy expanses of the Sahara.

But it's hard to feel any sympathy. After all, ultimately, these guys all still won. You can’t un-buy the book. Now it’s just a question of how the thieves divvy up the swag. Ah, well. The book was amusing. The knife-fight will be too.

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