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Byline: Seth Mnookin
Nothing in Christianity is original.
-Leigh Teabing in Dan Brown's
The Da Vinci Code.
On April 11, Lewis Perdue sat on a bench in a gallery on the 17th floor of Manhattan's Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse and did his best to contain himself. Before him, a panel of judges from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit debated his future. As Perdue's lawyer launched into a tortuous and somewhat odd explanation to the court about how, as a science-fiction buff, he was a big fan of Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, Perdue tried in vain to suppress a sigh. Then he began to rock back and forth.
Three years earlier, tipped off by some reader e-mails and a glowing Washington Post review, Perdue read The Da Vinci Code, which had just been released, and, as he says, "was overcome with the sensation that I'd read the book before. In fact, I'd written it [in 2000] as Daughter of God." Almost immediately, Perdue sent a letter to Doubleday, Brown's publisher, in which he sketched out what he saw as the similarities between his work and The Da Vinci Code. Perdue concluded his May 28, 2003, letter-which was sent without the advice of an attorney-by writing, "Please let me know of [sic] there is any other information I can provide or any further assistance you might need in looking this over." Back then, before The Da Vinci Code had become one of the best-selling novels in history, Perdue wasn't sure exactly what he was hoping to accomplish. "I'm doing fine," he said at the time. "All I want is for someone to talk to me about all of this."
The aftershocks of Perdue's decision to speak out eventually consumed his life. Unprepared for the type of legalistic response that's standard in copyright-infringement cases, Perdue found the reply to his letter condescending and bullying. "There is not one instance of an alleged similarity that is not either trivial or related to noncopyrightable material," Katherine Trager, an in-house lawyer for Random House, the publishing giant that owns Doubleday, wrote to Perdue on June 16, 2003. On the off chance that Perdue was "interested in reading some of the case law in this area," Trager offered her recommendations. "I didn't know anything about copyright law," Perdue says. "But I knew that Dan Brown had completely stolen the plot of my book."
The 57-year-old Perdue looks as if he could be either an ex-seminarian or an ex-Marine. His bristly gray hair, which he wears in a slightly grown-out flattop, is softened by the gentle contours of his face and his pleading eyes. He often displays the overwhelming enthusiasm of a small child, and has a finely honed sense of moral absolutism and an almost masochistic penchant for taking quixotic stands.
Both sides of Perdue's family were born and raised in Mississippi-one of his great-great-grandfathers helped write the state constitution and served as chief justice of the State Supreme Court. In 1967, in the first semester of his freshman year, Perdue was asked to leave the University of Mississippi for leading a civil-rights march that concluded with him giving a man-the-barricades speech on the mayor's front porch. His family decided that if he couldn't figure out a way to make a go of it at Ole Miss they weren't interested in paying for him to go anywhere else. At the age of 18, Perdue got a job with Westinghouse and moved to Elmira, in upstate New York. About a year later he enrolled at Corning Community College. He graduated in 1970 with a 4.0 grade-point average and was admitted to Cornell, where he paid his tuition by working as the police and fire reporter for The Ithaca Journal.
Perdue's wide-ranging interests have led him on a number of varied-some might say scattered-career paths. He's written more than a dozen books, from his many religious-themed thrillers (some of which ended up on regional best-seller lists) to Supercharging Your PC. He taught journalism and writing, he started a wine importer and distributorship, and he founded two tech companies. Perdue had achieved a reasonable amount of success in these endeavors, and by 2003 he had what he considered a blessedly comfortable life. He was able to afford a 1,300-square-foot ranch house on a fourth of an acre two miles west of Sonoma, California, where he lived with his wife of 22 years and their two children.
Prior to getting Katherine Trager's response to his letter, Perdue had almost convinced himself to just move on and forget about Dan Brown. But once he felt patronized, he became determined to prove he wasn't just some nut looking to hitch a ride on a best-seller's coattails. (The Da Vinci Code debuted on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 1 on April 6, 2003.) Perdue spent much of the rest of 2003 researching copyright law and trying to find a local firm to take him on as a pro bono client. By the end of the year, he'd persuaded the Santa Monica-based Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan to help him with the case. Before long, Perdue was talking openly about the possibility of a payday: in March 2004, he told a reporter that if he won a lawsuit against Brown "then everything he has is mine."
On July 30 of the same year, the legal maneuvering in the case began when Alschuler Grossman sent a letter to producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard demanding that they "cease and desist from proceeding with the contemplated movie based upon 'The Da Vinci Code.'" On September 2, the firm sent a letter to Random House. "Before we commence an action for copyright infringement," the letter read, "we would like to provide Random House and Mr. Brown with an opportunity to resolve this matter. If we do not hear from you by September 13, 2004, we will assume that Random House and Mr. Brown are not interested in discussing settlement and we will …