A Londoner's Diary; Piers Paul Read on the New Yorker Who Plagiarised Martin Amis, and Dan Brown's Slander of Opus Dei

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Byline: PIERS PAUL READ

Shortly before it was published, I was sent an advance copy of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I glanced through it, recognised the recycled nonsense of the Eighties bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and sent it off, unread, to the Oxfam shop. Now Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, are suing Dan Brown for breach of copyright. I would be surprised if they succeed. As I understand it, an author's rights are confined to his words, not his characters, plots or ideas. Particularly when an author, or in this case authors, claims that they are uncovering historical truths, those truths enter the public domain.

Both books were big bestsellers, which only goes to show that even if you can't fool all of the people all of the time, you can fool a fair number of people some of the time. I eventually read The Da Vinci Code for a review of a book by an American biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, called Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. Ehrman's polite dissection of Brown's bogus claims is devastating.

Did Brown know that he was misleading his readers by suggesting that his novel was based on historical truth? Was he ignorant, cynical or just lazy?

That riddle has still to be solved.

Sometimes it is difficult to gauge whether breach of copyright is accidental or not. Back in the Seventies, when Martin Amis was staying with us in Yorkshire, I recommended Wild Oats, a book by a young American novelist, Jacob Epstein, whom we had met in New York, saying, 'This is just your sort of thing.' And it was. Martin came down the next morning having annotated passages taken from his own novel, The Rachel Papers, word for word. He then exposed the plagiarism in The Observer.

Epstein's defence was that it had been inadvertent: he had copied the passages into a notebook without noting the provenance.

They made up only a small part of the novel but Martin's article caused a furore in New York and brought young Epstein's career as a novelist to an end.

We have strict libel laws but, so far as I know, no law against institutional slander. If there was, an action could be brought against Dan Brown by the Catholic Church, and particularly the Catholic prelature, Opus Dei.

The Church is accused of doctoring the gospels to conceal the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, and Opus Dei of sending an assassin to murder those in the know. This is a slanderous pandering to popular prejudice. As John Allen's recent book on the organisation makes clear, Opus Dei is an association of devout Catholics who believe that a quest for holiness is not incompatible with a job in the world. …