This column was written by CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, who is based on London.
The somewhat tasteless joke circulating among journalists outside London's High Court goes like this: Did you hear about the planeful of vacationers that crashed on the way back from the islands? Investigators have already recovered 37 copies of the "Da Vinci Code."
Inside court or out, no one is challenging the fact that the Dan Brown bestseller has been, well — popular. Some even claim that the phenomenal, 40 million-copy success of the book — and not its arcane, crypto-historical theories about Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, French royal bloodlines and secret societies — is the real impetus for the accusing Brown of copyright infringement.
I'd like to imagine that sort of cynicism would be enshrined in English law as Ubi prosperitas ille causa; though I must admit I've only seen the thought expressed in the more popular, non-Latin phrase: Where there's a hit, there's a writ.
A question they do ask in English courts of law is that old Latin classic on deeds and motives: Cui bono? - that is, Who stands to benefit? In this case, it seems maybe almost everyone. The Da Vinci Code trial, according to publisher and broadcaster Andrew Neil, is "a dripping roast; and everyone wants a share of the drips."
There are, of course, the lawyers — who'll be paid no matter what.
Then there's the movie. Sony Pictures' "The Da Vinci Code" is due to be released May 19, and conveniently coincident with the start of the trial are trailers for the film were made available for use on TV.
They'd be very expensive to broadcast and would be called "commercials" if they weren't being used as illustrative video in news stories — which of course, they are. Endlessly. What's more, there's even a bit of suspense added to the free publicity about the widescreen thriller: the extreme possibility that the judge could delay its release. Not likely, but not bad for keeping the publicity engine running.
In British courts, the financial risk borne by the plaintiffs in an action such as this is considerable; if they lose, they're responsible for paying all the bills. Those would include court costs and the substantial legal fees Random House is shelling out defending Brown's book, as well as their own lawyers' charges.
By one estimate, the case is likely to cost upwards of £1 million British pounds. That certainly does represent a potential downside for the plaintiffs: "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.
On the other hand, sales of their 1982 book have boomed since the start of the trial. The book was a modest bestseller when it was released. It has enjoyed enhanced popularity on the coattails of the Da Vinci Code's success — and now that it's in court, it's hot.
Amazon.com reported a 3,500 percent increase in sales right after the trial began; Giles Elliott of Bookseller Magazine told the British Press Association that sales have increased 745 percent just in the U.K. He says that's a jump from about 350 copies a week to around 3,000.
Admittedly, it would still take a lot of book sales to pay off a million-pound debt. On the other hand, the interest in "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" can't hurt co-author Baigent's next book, which it's said will challenge with "new evidence" everything that's known about the life and death of Jesus. And that book's due out — gee, it does get convenient here — within a month.
What a quandary for Random House, which publishes both the Brown book and the Baigent-Leigh book. Or maybe not. The U.S. paperback edition of the Da Vinci Code comes out later this month; the print run will top 5 million copies. There may indeed be some worries about how the law will handle all this, but it does seem the booksellers will come out all right.
Dripping roast? More like a moveable feast, moving to wherever there's a connection to the Code. Including to the antique stately home outside Paris called Chateau de Villette, which is featured in the book and will be seen in the movie.
An American real estate investor bought the property in 1999 for around 4 million pounds, then spent a fortune restoring it. She's decided it's now an opportune time to put it back on the market, with an asking price of around 16 million pounds. The publicity, of course, is priceless.
By Richard Roth
Copyright 2006 CBS. All rights reserved.