September 28th, 2006 → 9:59 am @ Seth Mnookin
Dan Brown has claimed many times — most recently in his witness statement in a plagiarism case in London involving the pseudo-history book Holy Blood, Holy Grail — that the inspiration for Digital Fortress, his first novel, came in 1995, when Brown was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. “At the time,” Brown said in his statement, “the U.S. Secret Service came to campus and detained one of the students claiming he was a threat to national security. As it turned out, the student had sent a private email to a friend saying how much he hated President Clinton and how he thought the president should be shot. The Secret Service came to campus to make sure he wasn’t serious. … [T]he incident really stuck with me. Email was brand new on the scene, and like most people, I assumed email was private. I couldn’t figure out how the Secret Service knew what these students were saying in their email.” Brown has repeated this story many times; on his website, Brown describes “the true story” behind Digital Fortress thusly: “In the Spring of 1995, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, the U.S. Secret Service made a bust…”
While researching a Vanity Fair article on the plagiarism accusations that have trailed Brown, I looked into this claim and couldn’t find any evidence that the Secret Service had ever visited Phillips Exeter. (In late 1996 and early 1997, there were several incidents in which New Hampshire high school students were accused of sending emails threatening Clinton; none of those involved Phillips Exeter.) But it took until last week before the Secret Service confirmed that they have no record of the incident Brown claims inspired him. In a letter dated September 20, Special Agent in Charge, Freedom of Information & Privacy Rights Officer Kathy Lyerly responded to a written request I had filed back in April. Lyerly wrote:
“Reference is made to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request originally received by the United States Secret Service on April 25, 2006, for information pertaining to the Secret Service visit to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
“A review of the Secret Service’s systems of records indicates that there are no records or documents pertaining to your request in Secret Service files.”
Brownâ€šÃ„Ã´s seeming fabrication is one of several that checker his past; there’s also one unambiguous case of plagiarism involving an academic paper written by Leonardo expert and inventor Mark E. Rosheim. (For all the details, check out the VF article.) My original piece detailed what seems like a failed plagiarism case brought against Brown by author Lewis Perdue. The publishing world (and the public) has been, for the most part, apathetic about Perdue’s case, or in any of the accusations against Brown…so I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who’s interested.
September 21st, 2006 → 11:05 am @ Seth Mnookin
I know some of you think I’m Ahab to Murray Chass’s Dick. That’s not the first time I’ve been accused of white whaling a guy: former Times editor Howell Raines was convinced my coverage of the disastrous consequences of his nightmarish tenure stemmed from some made-up grudge. And there’s Dan Brown, the well-known composer of soft-rock paeans to phone sex operators: I’ve intermittently covered a case in which he’s been accused of plagiarism since 2003, first at Newsweek, more recently at Vanity Fair; Brown’s publisher, agent, and lawyer have all intimated I have it out for the guy. (If anything, I think there should be more songs about phone sex.)
The crux of that case is this: Lewis Perdue, author of Daughter of God and Da Vinci Legacy (among other thrillers), thought Brown had cribbed The Da Vinci Code from his work. When I read the two books, I thought Perdue had a point; unlike the laughably preposterous Holy Blood, Holy Grail case (which was brought to trial in London), Perdue’s book and Brown’s book were remarkably similar, at least to my eyes (which admittedly haven’t spent a lot of time reading religious-themed page-turners). It’s a weird, complicated case, which Perdue eventually lost — a pretty resounding defeat, actually — and to get the full rundown you’ll probably need to read the VF story.
There is some new news in the case, and, since I always find it weird when people make a big deal out of stories and then never follow up, here it is. After Perdue lost his case in Federal Court, Random House asked for approximately $300,000 in attorney’s fees, an amount which would more or less bankrupt Perdue (but wouldn’t add much to the hundreds of millions of dollars Brown and Random House have made off Da Vinci Code). On August 30, a court-appointed magistrate recommended against attorney’s fees being awarded; last week, the federal judge in the case — the same one that had ruled against Perdue — agreed. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:
1. It means that, while Perdue may have spent a couple of years of his life devoted to this, he won’t risk losing his house.
2. The federally appointed magistrate, in his carefully worded ruling, appeared to come close to disagreeing with the judge’s initial decision. (Without getting into specifics of summary and declaratory judgments, the initial decision essentially ruled that Perdue didn’t even have the right to have his claim heard before a jury because there was no way he’d win.) To wit: “Although it is true that, after a thorough review of each of the factors described above the court determined that an average lay observer would conclude that The Da Vinci Code ‘is simply a different story than that told by Daughter of God,’ Perdue proffered e-mail he received from ‘lay observers,’ who claimed Brown had ‘plagiarized’ Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s work. In addition, a forensic linguist also supported Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s claims. Moreover, the Court notes that, although the August 4 Opinion is a sweeping rejection of all Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s allegations of similarity, the court neither characterized Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s claims as frivolous nor stated that they were close to frivolous. Therefore, the Court finds that Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s counterclaims were objectively reasonable.” (Caveat emptor: I’m no lawyer, and often find the legal world through-the-looking-glass weird. For example, I thought it strange that the judge in the case borrowed huge sections, word-for-word, from the Random House/Brown brief in his ruling in favor of Random House/Brown; in journalism (or academia), that’s the kind of thing that would get you, you know, fired. But apparently this is not out of the ordinary in rulings. Go figure.)
3. It’s always amusing when a request for $300,000 gets knocked down to $256.13, which is what the judge eventually ruled for.
At this point, the case is pretty much over…although in August, Perdue did ask the Supreme Court to look at the case, which is the only way he can get it reexamined. All of those details — and many, many more — are available on one of the several sites Perdue maintains devoted to the case. (Speaking of white whales…)
June 7th, 2006 → 3:14 pm @ Seth Mnookin
Wow. It only took about eight hours for the first plagiarism case arising from my Da Vinci Code story to erupt. The long and short of it: the Boston Herald lifted their item in today’s paper from yesterday’s Editor & Publisher report. The Huffington Post has the details…and the Herald has already taken the story off of its website.
June 6th, 2006 → 11:49 pm @ Seth Mnookin
The first copies of the new Vanity Fair with my article on the plagiarism controversies surrounding Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code were distributed to the press today. The piece (which isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t available online), includes new details and exclusive interviews concerning a number of charges that have been leveled against Brown, including one involving Lewis Perdueâ€šÃ„Ã´s Daughter of God in which several copyright infringement experts side with Perdue and one in which Brown copied, word for word, from an academic paper written by an expert on Leonardoâ€šÃ„Ã´s robot. The response thus far has been predictable. Doubleday, Brownâ€šÃ„Ã´s publisher, once again cited rulings siding with Brown in American and British courts; a spokeswomen told The New York Times, â€šÃ„ÃºWe have no further comment about the Vanity Fair story.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Of course, itâ€šÃ„Ã´s no surprise that Doubleday would do whatever it can to convince people the story isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t worth paying attention to: The Da Vinci Code has been responsible for more revenue than any other hardcover title in publishing history. But coming on the heels of the fabricated James Frey memoirâ€šÃ„Ã®A Million Little Pieces is another Doubleday titleâ€šÃ„Ã®and coming at a time when accountability and reliability in the information industries are under fire, youâ€šÃ„Ã´d like to think Doubleday would at least make a show of pretending to care that Brown, at the very least, lifted a passage from the work of a St. Paul robotics expert. (When the expert, Mark Rosheim, contacted Brownâ€šÃ„Ã´s editor in 2003, Rosheim says the editor essentially told him to buzz off.) Whatâ€šÃ„Ã´s a little more surprising is the response Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ve gotten so far from people whoâ€šÃ„Ã´ve written in to my website. Despite the fact that the only people whoâ€šÃ„Ã´ve read the piece are a handful of publishing reporters, Da Vinci Code fans have been sending in their hate mail. â€šÃ„ÃºItâ€šÃ„Ã´s LOSERS like yourself who fail to write good literature and bash others to make yourself look good,â€šÃ„Ã¹ writes Dan from Kalamazoo. Or maybe itâ€šÃ„Ã´s not so surprising. Just like San Francisco Giants fans who insist that, really, thereâ€šÃ„Ã´s not any proof that Barry Bonds has used steroids, Ted says he doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t even want to know if Dan Brown is a plagiarist. â€šÃ„ÃºPersonally, I wouldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t care if he copied it word for word from someone elseâ€šÃ„Ã´s work.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Good to know.