Millions of people around the world love the Sherlock Holmes stories created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and millions also love a multitude of derivative works based on the character. Most, but not all, Sherlock stories are in the public domain in the US. Thousands of Sherlock adaptations exist, but not all have been created without conflict.
Continuing a history of litigation, the Conan Doyle estate recently filed a lawsuit against the adaptation of Sherlock’s character in the new Enola Holmes movie on Netflix. The estate argues that certain character traits only show up in later stories, which are still under copyright, and Enola Holmes includes those. But can you even copyright character traits? We’ll take a look at Sherlock Holmes copyright history to understand what’s going on today with the Enola Holmes lawsuit.
Between 1887 and 1927, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring the beloved detective Sherlock Holmes. The copyrights for these works expired in the UK and Canada in 1980, were revived there in 1996, and then expired again in 2000. Now, the Sherlock stories are all in public domain in these locations.
Because of differences in copyright law, some of the last stories are still protected in the United States. Specifically, nine short stories from The Case-Book are still under copyright. They were written between 1923 and 1927, and they will enter the public domain by 2023.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the latter batch of stories after World War I, which took his son and brother. The Sherlock of these stories is more human. He has empathy and emotion. The world was accustomed to a Sherlock that was cold and calculating at all times, so this was a surprising development. We’ll call this version Sherlock 2.0, and he will have a role to play in this story later on.
In recent works for TV and film, Sherlock has been played by the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and even the goofy Will Ferrell. But these works barely scratch the tip of the iceberg of Sherlock adaptations. Combining works for film, music, radio, stage, video games, and more, there are over 25,000 products that are related to the famous detective. Most of these have paid licensing fees to Doyle’s estate voluntarily or by compulsion of a lawsuit.
In 2013, the Conan Doyle estate insisted Leslie Klinger pay a fee to license the Sherlock character for an anthology he was creating. But Klinger decided to sue the estate instead, claiming it was overstepping its bounds since most of the Sherlock material was in the public domain.
In court, the judge acknowledged that some parts of Sherlock’s character were protected in copyrighted stories, but Klinger was free to create works based on the character set forth in public domain stories. The copyrights on later works only applied to new characters and story elements in those books.
In 2006, author Nancy Springer introduced the Enola Holmes character in a series of novels. Enola Holmes didn’t exist in the original Sherlock universe, but the story included Sherlock and a number of other original characters and settings. The crucial element is that this adaptation uses Sherlock 2.0, the one with feelings and warmth.
Those character traits were supposedly still under copyright, but the Doyle estate didn’t take any action against Springer when the books were written. It decided to take action this year instead, when Netflix got the rights to produce a movie based on Springer’s character of Enola Holmes.
Once that happened, the Doyle estate filed a lawsuit claiming these new Sherlock character traits were still under copyright. The lawsuit brings claims of copyright and trademark infringement against Springer, her publisher Penguin Random House, film producer Legendary Pictures, Netflix, and the movie director Harry Bradbeer.
The lawsuit has yet to be concluded, but the estate didn’t file an injunction against Netflix barring it from releasing the movie. Enola Holmes premiered as scheduled on September 23, 2020. At the end of October, the film’s defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. They argued that the traits of emotion and respect in the copyrighted Sherlock stories have been seen before in some public domain Sherlock stories, and there is evidence to back that up.
They also assert that copyright law doesn’t allow the Doyle estate to own basic human traits like warm emotions and respect. Since the rest of Sherlock’s character is in the public domain, that’s what the estate is trying to control.
For the time being, we’ll have to wait to see what the court decides on the matter. Either way, the Doyle estate only has a couple more years until it has to let go of the Sherlock Holmes copyright in the US for good.