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"Code' vs. "Holy Grail'

The Da Vinci Code, a publishing phenomenon since it first appeared on bookshelves in 2003, lately has become required reading for lawyers and judges.

Dan Brown, the author of the popular conspiracy thriller, appeared in Britain's High Court on Monday, accused of plagiarism by two British historians, co-authors with a third historian of a speculative history of the Holy Grail. The third author, Henry Lincoln, has not joined the lawsuit.

The legal action comes on the heels of a U.S. lawsuit filed in New York by yet another writer, claiming Brown copied his ideas. That suit was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in August.

In Britain, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, have sued Random House, The Da Vinci Code's publisher, claiming Brown stole material for his thriller from their 1982 book, which, in a twist worthy of such works of conspiracy, also was published by none other than Random House.

The court action - if it succeeds in getting an injunction barring use of the material under dispute - could threaten the British release of the film adaptation of the novel, starring Tom Hanks and Sir Ian McKellen, which is scheduled to open on May 19. Officials at Sony Pictures Entertainment, however, are unconcerned.

"This lawsuit is not about the movie, and we are proceeding with our plans," Jim Kennedy, senior vice president for corporate communications at Sony, told the Times.

The lawsuit would not affect the American release of the film nor the highly anticipated release of the paperback version of the novel, which finally is scheduled to appear March 28, according to Random House's Suzanne Herz.

Why the flurry of lawsuits now?

"As the British would say, where there's a hit, there's a writ," says Herz who handled the hardback version of Brown's tale.

The Da Vinci Code certainly has been a hit. According to Herz, more than 40-million copies of the novel are in print worldwide, with 12-million in North America alone.

The figures include the original novel, published in March 2003, as well as an illustrated version published in November 2004. Maintaining its place on the bestseller list, The Da Vinci Code has remained in hardback for more than three years, a rarity in publishing. The Guardian Unlimited called Brown "one of the highest paid authors in history."

The two "writs" filed against Brown, however, differ in at least one significant detail: The U.S. lawsuit claimed Brown lifted ideas from a novel. The British suit alleges Brown has used the ideas and themes of a nonfiction book, raising questions in British copyright law about the extent to which an author can use other people's research.

In the U.S. case, Lewis Purdue asserted that Brown copied the basic premise underlying his novels Daughter of God and The Da Vinci Legacy.

In August, U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels ruled that there is no substantial similarity between Brown's book and Purdue's novels. Any similarities, he wrote, had to do with "unprotectable ideas, historical facts and general themes that do not represent any original elements of Perdue's work."

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a highly speculative history of the Holy Grail, was controversial when it was published in 1982. Its thesis - that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, they had a child and their bloodline can be traced today - was denounced by the Roman Catholic Church. That thesis is at the heart of The Da Vinci Code, which also asserts that these secrets have been passed down through a society established to protect Mary and Jesus' descendants.

Brown's villain in The Da Vinci Code is Sir Leigh Teabing, which Leigh and Baigent claim is an anagram of their names. Their book is mentioned as a source in The Da Vinci Code.

But Brown has not used all of the conclusions of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In their 1982 book Leigh and Baigent also posit that Christ did not die on the cross but lived and later went to France, an idea not included in Brown's novel. According to the Guardian Unlimited, Brown, who is expected to testify next week, told reporters outside the court that he totally rejects this idea.

"Suggesting a married Jesus is one thing, but questioning the Resurrection undermines the very heart of Christian belief," said Brown who calls himself a committed Christian.

Whatever the merit of their lawsuit, Baigent and Leigh already have profited from the success of The Da Vinci Code and the controversy surrounding the court action.

In 2005, an illustrated edition of their book was published due to the increased interest in their ideas perpetuated by The Da Vinci Code. Since the announcement of the lawsuit, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail has shot up the bestseller chart. It ranked 19 late Monday.

THE "DA VINCI CODE' WRITER: Dan Brown arrives at the Royal Court of Justice in London to answer charges of plagiarism by two British historians, co-authors with a third historian of a speculative history of the Holy Grail.

THE "HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL' WRITERS: Richard Leigh, left, and Michael Baigent claim Dan Brown stole ideas from their 1982 bestselling book.