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‘Code’ man on stand

Plagiarism trial underway in Blighty

Two months before Sony bets big on “The Da Vinci Code,” its creator continues to face a challenge.

Dan Brown, who authored the bestseller on which the pic is based, took the stand Monday in London’s High Court to refute claims that he stole ideas from nonfiction tome “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”

In a long statement describing his artistic process, Brown called the claims “simply untrue” and “absurd” and said he was “shocked” by the allegations.

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the co-authors of 1982’s “Holy Blood,” have sued Brown’s U.K. publisher, Random House U.K., alleging plagiarism. Their book contains the so-called bloodline theory – which says Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene and their descendants are alive today – and the authors claim Brown used it as a backbone of his bestselling thriller.

Brown acknowledges he and his wife, Blythe, who worked as his researcher on the title, drew on the earlier book for 2003’s “Da Vinci Code.” A credit to the earlier book is in the front of “Da Vinci” and Brown uses an anagram of Baigent’s name for a character named Leigh Teabing.

What Brown contests is that the authors were the sole proprietors of this theory – or that a theory like this could be copyrighted in the first place.

“Messrs. Baigent and Leigh are only two of a number of authors who have written about the bloodline story, and I went out of my way to mention them for being the ones who brought the theory to mainstream attention,” he said in the statement.

Hundreds of pages of other source material have been brought by Brown’s lawyers to support their claim that “Holy Blood” was not a key piece of Brown’s research.

“The Da Vinci Code” offers a rarity in Hollywood – a built-in brand that has tens of millions of fans around the world and offers an easy international hook, with the story set at the Louvre and featuring the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

But the trial could slow the film’s release. And while an injunction would be unlikely, if the case drags out, it could jeopardize Columbia’s marketing ambitions.

A Sony rep would only say, “This lawsuit is not about the movie, and we are proceeding with our plans.” Pic is set to bow at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17 and go into release worldwide day-and-date two days later.

At one time such urgency might have prompted a settlement, but the trial is continuing apace, with U.K. publishing magnate Patrick Janson-Smith set to take the stand later in the week.

No doubt Brown’s U.S. publisher, Random house unit Doubleday, also wants the trial to be over with quickly, not least because Brown is scheduled to release another book whose publication will probably be held at least until after the trial is over.

That tome, at one time titled “The Solomon Key” and thought to be a possible 2005 release, has had its release info clouded in more mystery than one of Brown’s characters. The publisher has recently said even its title is not set in stone.

“The Da Vinci Code” came out three years ago to somewhat modest attention, but sales picked up tremendously after Brown made appearances on NBC’s “Today” and other media.

The case has been filled with ironies: “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” actually got a sales bump because of “Da Vinci.”

And Doubleday itself has been very protective of the Da Vinci brand: When a book dissecting Brown’s research came out under the title “Breaking the Da Vinci Code,” the house threatened legal action. (Doubleday later reached a truce with that book’s publisher.)

Case highlights growing issues with fact-based fiction – that is, real-life research cloaked in fictional form. The category’s other leading bestseller, Elizabeth Kostova’s vampire tale “The Historian,” also was bought by Sony, with Red Wagon producing the film.