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The case of the recycled tripe

This is a fascinating mystery story. As someone who loves books and has worked in publishing, I have long been perplexed by the massive sales of leaden conspiracy ‘thrillers’ (as I have to write it, being really very ungripped) and of pseudo-histories.

These are strange alien artefacts in the literary world. They appear to be books, having the same physical manifestation. Yet the words in them have no rhythm, and make no sense, the world they portray is all surface, all banality: all invented, but paradoxically without imagination.

The familiar book, grounded in fact or rich in fiction, sells (mostly slowly) to an audience that comes back for more books. These… I need another wordname… reads are bought in vast numbers by people who do not otherwise read. You see them swarming on the tube, at bus-stops, in advertisements as book-club special offers, everywhere. And then they are gone. Where?

Few have the life-span of a book, it seems. But where do they go to die? They are seldom seen in second-hand shops. And why are they so successful when they are plainly so inbred?

The genus is so narrow that there’s always been some doubt in my mind whether it is two species or one. Now a strange court-case may inform us on that matter (if not why the infernal things are so popular). It appears that two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a “non-fiction” work of non-history, are suing in the High Court the writer of a fictional read called The Da Vinci Code for copyright infringement.

If the author of a history book were to sue an historical novelist, then we would expect it to be on the ground that passages of text were quoted without permission. For use of expression, not content. There is no copyright in facts.

But weirdly that’s not what is going on here. Jonathan Rayner-James QC for the plaintiffs said:

HBHG is a book of historical conjecture setting out the authors’ hypothesis. The authors’ historical conjecture has spawned many other books that developed aspects of this conjecture in a variety of directions. But none has lifted the central theme of the book

Which is what Dan Brown is accused of.

What could make “historical conjecture” original work capable of copyright protection? Only that it bears no relation to history, it seems to me. Can it really be the plaintiffs’ case that the novel is not novel enough, because their read – sold all over the world labeled ‘non-fiction’ – is in fact a fantasy?

If that is their case, and that case prevails prevails, then I am interested to know what the publishers of HBHG, HarperCollins who also published The Da Vinci Code and are joint defendants, might do. Did their contract with the plaintiffs contain that standard apotropaic against libel, a warranty from the author that “all statements purporting to be facts are true”? The consequence for the pseudo-historical read as a genre could be interesting.

Extinction of the species would be too much to hope for, I suppose. But for once a thriller has me gripped.

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49 comments to The case of the recycled tripe

  • I assume this is a publicity stunt to help Blood/Grail sell a few more copies on the back of the Brown phenomenon. It might wring out a few more sales for the DaVinci Code too.

    I remember finding Baignent & Leigh very convincing – I was about 11 and just getting over Eric Von Daniken.

  • Julian Taylor

    I wonder how this would affect the Tom Hanks movie of the book (yawn). Wouldn’t the movie have to be placed on release suspension until this publicity stunt legal wrangle is resolved?

  • guy herbert

    Wouldn’t a court-case as a publicity stunt be champerty, and/or contempt?

  • Having read both books I was struck when I read the DaVinci code that Dan Brown seems to have merely taken HBHG and turned it into a novel. I think they have a case.

  • Andy Dwelly

    > I think they have a case.

    Surely not. Copyright law in the UK covers the actual words chosen by the authors, not the ideas expressed. That’s what patents are for.

    However the courts are a lottery and UK legal decisions take note of precedent as well. If the court was to decide in favour of the earlier ‘historical work’ there would be a huge impact on the intellectual property situation in the UK.

  • watcher in the dark

    I think all this about history and non-history is a little confusing. As far as I can see, history as a “fact” is dictated largely by either those who were on the winning side or those who run the state.

    Either way, the “facts” Guy Herbert alludes to will usually avoid certain issues or evidence. History is still a matter of opinions and wishful thinking (e.g David Irving, Soviet text books, etc) and we might wonder how Iraq and OBL are to be interpreted in a hundred years time…

    I think I read Blood/Grail many years ago and can’t remember anything about it, but it must have been entertaining enough for me to finish it – which is more than I did for the Code novel.

    Perhaps all these books are fantasy, but then so are all kinds of autobiographies, leader articles, CVs and Manifestos, so we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Let’s just regard publishing as an adventure in making things up and then we can all worry less.

  • Rich

    Opps I thought you were going to talk about David Camerons new publication. Beeb(Link) Yawn!

    Sorry, don’t bother reading it all, here’s the gist

    David Cameron is outlining his vision for a “modern, compassionate” Tory party, which he says will be seen as a “serious alternative” to Labour.

  • James

    Hell, maybe Hanks’ll do a film about the case. He’s already done courtroom drama.

  • James

    Having read both books I was struck when I read the DaVinci code that Dan Brown seems to have merely taken HBHG and turned it into a novel. I think they have a case.

    I’m not sure how they’d have a case. If he’d published something that seemed identical to their work, then I could understand. But it seems he took some of their ideas and built a story around it. I’m assuming that’s legal to do in the UK.

  • guy herbert

    I think all this about history and non-history is a little confusing. As far as I can see, history as a “fact” is dictated largely by either those who were on the winning side or those who run the state.

    That’s one popular view of history. However, whether or not you believe it sustained by either evidence or power, and with whatever degree of certainty, history makes factual claims about the past.

  • Nick M

    Thousands of novels have been written based upon history (or pseudo-history in this case) and they haven’t ended up in court. This is a stunt and Andrew McGuiness hit the nail squarely on the head in the first comment.

  • I think DVC was a rip off from HBHG. HBHG seems more rational than the ‘official’ canon if you ask me, which is hardly a challenge.

    Next we will see Blair taking Cameron to court over the manifesto…

  • toolkien

    If the plaintiffs win it will only be another example of the crimping creativity and claiming a slice of the pie once the flavor becomes popular. I’m sure if Brown’s book had not been a success, these fellows would not have from under their rock.

    This sort of reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s claim against James Cameron and his Terminator movie. Supposedly Cameron lifted the story from Ellison’s Outer Limits episodes “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand”. Camerson settled and Ellison got a credit. So Ellison writes a story about two soldiers thrust back through time and no one else can come up with something similar ever again? I think Christopher Tolkien has some lawyers to contact, because the last time I checked there are whole walls filled with Lord of the Rings clones at just about every book store I’ve been to.

    A genre of music, the Blues, is based on three riffs. I guess whoever came up with them first is owed a whole lotta royalties.

    Carrie “Princess Leah” Fisher cracked wise about intangible rights taken to absurd lengths when Lucas sewed up imaging rights to Star Wars, and maintained them so tightly that “every time she looked in the mirror, she owed him a royalty”. Exaggerated, of course, but makes one pause at just how nonsensical some claims can be in the world of intangible rights. Taken to its logical end, we’d have one action story, one romance story, one time travel story, one western, etc etc etc.

    The underlying issue is being wholly unoriginal is not a crime. It would become pretty apparent fairly quickly if Brown lifted, word for word, from another source, otherwise there is creativity involved. Granted the book wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I don’t read much fiction and if this is the best of the current lot, I probably won’t be reading much more.

  • AC

    I wonder what UK precedent indicates. The situation is almost identical to the Nash case in the U.S., and the author of the historical hypothesis lost.

  • Nick M

    Good points.
    Imagine how much Al Gore is owed for inventing the internet.

  • Snobs.

    99% of the commentators here frequently (and rightly) vent their frustrations at our dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed countrymen.

    Finally a book comes along that discusses weightier issues than David Beckham’s latest haircut, and is it rubbished!

    There’s no pleasing some folk.

  • RAB

    Yes read both books, and indeed a third, which I’ll come to.
    The Da Vinci Code is, for a thriller, incredibly unthrilling badly written junk, full of didactic asides explaining mother goddesses and Templar symbolism and cryptography.
    As for HBHG, read it years ago and the basic premise was interesting. Jesus doesn’t die on the cross, does a runner , marries Mary Magdelaine and starts a family in the S of France.
    Great! but so what? Had the authors tracked down the Holy family, we might have been more interested. They certainly dont seem to have been in the religion business for 2000 years.
    Perhaps they are running a loaves and fishes shop in Lyons, that myseriously no one sees any delivery trucks arrive at!
    The man who wrote the third book is Father Lionel Fanthorpe. He buried my father and several relatives.
    His book with his wife about Rennes Le Chateau, kicked HBHG in the ass for sloppy everything, from research to writing, but they didn’t sue him.He may even turn up as a defence witness.
    This cannot be allowed to succeed legally or we will be in a right mess

  • Rich

    Father Lionel Fanthorpe, who, editor of “The Fortean Times”? Brilliant.

    He also wrote a couple of hundred awful SF books for Badger under loads of psuedonyms, a great deal of his work was kinda similar to other stories of the time.

    He’d be a great witness for either side! He’s a nutter.

  • John

    This is an open-and-shut case. Dan Brown is guilty as sin! What he is guilt of is making an obscene amount of money out of a mediocre piece of schlock feeble in its intellectual conception and crude in its workmanship. Who, I ask you, who would want to read such a piece of junk?–apart, I mean, from the thirty million or so people who have bought the book. I lack the words to tell you how offensive the situation is to great writers–well, like me, for instance–who write works of incandescent brilliance and breath-taking artistry only to find them, for reasons that defy reason and insult justice, unpublishable. A fat civil judgment would be letting this clown off far too easy. I say bring back the birch. Do you think the gallows are an option?

  • RAB

    Tsk Tsk Namesake, he is not a nutter be is a Believer!
    In fact the only clergyman I have met in the last 30 years who believes in God.
    Larger than life, certainly. A cross between friar Tuck and Winston Churchill, he went through 2 bottles of wine and half a salmon at my father’s wake. But great company and conversation.

  • Rich

    Believe me, when I say he’s a nutter it’s no insult. I’d give anything to meet the great man.

    Check out Fortean TV if you ever get a chance to see it, he presents it and scoots from UFO sighting to crop circle on his Harley. Dog collar and all.

    This is the guy isn’t it(Link).

  • guy herbert

    Which was what intrigued me about the whole thing, John. This isn’t the usual whinge by the literary against the mass-market. I can’t understand what makes people buy these things; it is just a fact that they do.

    What’s fascinating here is that both parties have made fortunes from dreck, but in order to claim against the more successful purveyor, the claimants are obliged to deny the premise of ‘truth’ on which they originally traded, while the defendant still benefits from the inability of his market to tell fact from fiction.

    In this context, recall the comments of Umberto Eco, himself a considerable mediaevalist, about the letters he got from readers of his parody of precisely this material Foucault’s Pendulum, seriously congratulating him on exposing the conspiracy. Salman Rushdie was also dismayed to discover in the Satanic Verses affair that many readers were accusing him of ‘telling lies about the prophet’. They took a novel (and in that case a fable told by a character within the frame of a novel) to be a truth claim.

    I’d suggest, pace the watcher in the dark above, that it is not that consumers in these markets regard history as contestable narrative. It is that there is significant segment that lacks a concept of fiction, and pseudo-history (with its coincidences, surprise links, and narrative leaps) actually offers similar satisfactions to the flat-pack thriller which incorporates the names of historical figures, or existing places and institutions in the flow of its narrative.

  • Sigivald

    Been reading Cerebus, have we?

  • Matt O'Halloran

    The archetypal doorstopper conspiracy yarn is, of course, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. But it was too risible to be filmed.

  • Nick M

    Imagine that HSBC (or whatever it’s called) is the absolute “gospel” truth. Well, as Ripley said in Aliens, “That’s all very interesting Bishop, but where exactly does it get us?”

    In the early C21, does any of this Knights Templar, Illuminati, Bible code stuff make the slightest difference to anything?

    I can only think of one way it could influence me – I’ll have to stop hawking bits of the True Cross on ebay – which is no great shakes because I’m almost sold out of that old sideboard I sledgehammered in the backyard last year.

  • guy herbert


    Not for a long while. Sim lost me part way through Church and State.

  • I was wondering when someone was going to mention Cerebus.

    He actually named one of his story arcs ‘Reads’, Guy. So I suggest checking that one out.

    The best story arc in Cerebus is probably ‘Guys’ that one makes an entertaining (and thought provoking, provided you take Sim’s latent misanthropy with a pinch of salt) ‘read’ all on its own.

  • guy herbert

    In the early C21, does any of this Knights Templar, Illuminati, Bible code stuff make the slightest difference to anything?

    Yes. Because it teaches people credulous habits of mind. Failure to discriminate between the substantiated, the plausible, and the barking fantasy of a world all secrets and elaborate conspiracy leads you here, then here, then here. Do you really want the twenty-first century polity designed around a populace that believes a hidden cabal of Jewish propagandists, descendants of Christ, Yale alumni, or shap-changing space-lizards, controls everything of significance?

  • llamas

    That would be the same Fr Lionel Fanthorpe who I saw this last weekend on the Speed Channel, exorcising the demons resident in a ‘Y’-reg Capri, down Southend way?

    That Fr Fanthorpe?



  • RAB

    Yup that’s the bloke Rich.
    When I look back , I wonder at the amount of the weird and/or wonderful people , I have met in my life.
    Lionel is a diamond. God forbid that any more of my relatives die, but if they do I’ll introduce you at the funeral. Cos if you think he’s good on tv! my oh my his funerals are something else!
    People usually cry at funerals. But not normally from laughter.
    As to the legal and literary aspect of this thread.
    I am 100% with Guy.

  • Captain Coma


    “Atlas Shrugged” is now in production, slated for release in 2007 (according to the IMDB). It all fits!

  • Simon Jester

    If the authors of HBHG win, wouldn’t the Ahmadi Muslims be able to sue them in their turn? OK, so the Ahmadiyya thought Jesus went to live in Kashmir instead of France, but otherwise…

  • Nick M

    guy herbert,
    Precisely my point, it doesn’t matter unless you’re credulous and then you’d believe anything anyway. Google “David Icke” for confirmation.

  • Julian Taylor

    Muslims sue? Surely you mean ‘issue a fatwa’ or ‘call for the beheading of the infidel’?

  • Simon Jester

    The Ahmadiyya are a very reformed branch of Islam, so much so that most other Muslims consider them to be heretics.

  • GCooper

    guy herbert writes:

    “…a populace that believes a hidden cabal of Jewish propagandists, descendants of Christ, Yale alumni, or shap-changing space-lizards, controls everything of significance?”

    They don’t?

    That’s another of my illusions shattered.

  • I don’t know much about this issue, but the idea that Christ had descendants is hardly new, right? Is HBHG merely the telling of this enduring myth? If so, it seems to me telling the history of a myth constitutes history. I think 99% of the people reading DVC know it is the novelisation of a myth.

    Anyway, I think the authors of HBHG don’t have much of a case. If the court rules in their favor, it may put a damper on future historical novels. Something I think most here would not see as a great loss?

  • Nick I

    I suspect what Baigent and Leigh are really pissed about is that Dan Brown named his bad guy after them.

  • veryretired

    I’m with GC. I vote for the space lizards. At least they’ll help control the mosquitos and flies this summer.

    As to who’s really running things, check out the interview with Bukovsky in the Brussell’s Journal about the EU.

  • Richard Garner

    Dan Brown semi-Acknowledges Baignent and Leigh by blending their names to form the name of a character in his book.

    If Baignent and Leigh win this case, the implication would be that every fiction author would have to cite any research he used that others gathered. Every novel would look like State of Fear, with a bibliography at the back!

  • The Word, by Irving Wallace, dates from the early Seventies and appears to anticipate all these modern religio-cultural thrillers. It’s still in print and selling. So should Irving be suing everyone?

  • Michael S.

    Don’t forget Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction” from the early 1970s (that’s before Blood/Grail) with it’s Hitmen monks and the body of Jesus buried under the Vatican. Robbins should sue Baignent & Leigh just for comedic purposes.

  • guy herbert

    If so, it seems to me telling the history of a myth constitutes history.

    Yes. The history of ideas is an interesting and challenging discipline. But retelling a myth is not telling its history. The authors of HBHG [temptingly close to heebeegeebee] were not even doing that, but rather as is standard for the occultists who inhabit any inconvenient gaps forging a myth from any impressive-looking scraps of knowledge that came their way. (But with less effort, for a more easily impressed audience, than in the works of Flamel or Fludd, say.) ‘History’ as “one damn thing after another”, but with the things found and fitted by bricolage.

    Look at the work of the late Dame Frances Yates for how a proper examination of the development of Rosicrucian ideas proceeds. And Hilary Mantel’s Fludd for a novel with integrity built on that body of scholarship.

  • Matt O'Halloran

    Captain Coma: A movie of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has been a Hollywood tale almost as long as the big-screen remake of Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’. Whenever inquiries are made, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is in ‘script development’ or ‘turnaround’ or ‘we’re just completing the financing’, yadda yadda.

    Odd, really, considering how many votaries the Dragon Lady of Compulsory Freedom still has in the U.S. boondocks, not to mention Alan Greenspan.

    But not so odd when you recall the fate of her previous blockbuster, ‘The Fountainhead’. It was filmed from her own script in 1949 with Gary Cooper sleepwalking through the Frank Lloyd Wright role looking as if he longed for his six-guns. It was not a box office or critical success. The cards from the sneak preview audiences showed that more of them sympathised with the evil press tycoon played by Raymond Massey than with Coop’s heroic chain-gang architect.

    Moreover, L Ron Hubbard’s screen adaptation ‘Battlefield Earth’, courtesy of John Travolta, was an unintentional hoot. The first of the ‘Left Behind’ apocalypse yarns did not do much better. And David Lynch dropped the ball with ‘Dune’.

    Pace Tolkien and Peter Jackson, experientia docet that pulp philosophy is usually best left between soft covers, not transferred to tape and disc. Libboes and other species of nerd and wonk don’t have girlfriends to take to movies.

  • Novus

    That The Da Vinci Code is a straight rip-off of HBHG should have been obvious to anyone capable of spotting anagrams. At first I thought “Leigh Teabing” was just a crap attempt at a supposedly “English” name by an American author, but of course as the book progressed I realised what the point of it was. So he acknowledges his debt, but more importantly, as both Guy on this page and Sam Leith in Monday’s Telegraph observed, if L+B are claiming copyright it’s a tacit admission of falsity.

  • Fred

    Since my girlfriend is in the used book business, I feel qualified to explain to happens to used “thrillers” and the like.

    Garbage, or if lucky, recycling.

    Book dealers hate’em, they generally aren’t worth the cost of shipping when used, anybody who wants them can hit their local library used book sale and get them for about 25 to 50 cents US, or less on the last day: A dollar a bag.

    Their only redeeming features are that A. They are diverting from your latest travel mess without actually having to engage the brain and think much B. People reading them aren’t on the freakin’ cell phone- or other noise makers or power using gear.

  • What’s “lucky” about recycling? It wastes resources and encourages collectivist control of people’s lives.

  • guy herbert

    What’s “lucky” about recycling? It wastes resources and encourages collectivist control of people’s lives.

    Not necessarily. Unforced, i.e. genuine, recycling does the reverse. It is what was once called thrift. It is when “recycling” becomes a bureaucratic target activity and people are forced to do it regardless of economic or ecological sense, that it takes on the characteristics you suggest.

    My erstwhile Green colleagues completely miss this point, for the most part, since despite the rhetoric they are especially wont to fetishise particular activities, rather than look at output of the system as a whole.

  • Paul Marks

    Guy Herbert has produced a fine article here – it passes the ultimate test (I agree with it).

    I know perfectly well that I do not write well (my semiliterate postings show that), but I will only buy books that are well written.

    Mr Brown does not write well, he does not know the first thing about good writing (for example he tells his readers that someone is attractive or a genius – rather than letting the readers work it out for themselves).

    I would never spend money on his books (although I have read them – they were about in offices I was guarding on long night shifts) and yet they sell in their millions.

    On the phony history works.

    Well real history works can also sell well.

    The trick seems to be to have an author who has either come up with blatent nonsense (the phony history books) that informs the readers that the Knights Templer mutated into aliens and control the world via their U.F.O’s (or whatever).

    Or else simply have a decent historian who has been on television.

    That is perhaps the best thing about television history programmes – they get people to buy fairly decent history books.