Conan Doyle’s estate has filed a copyright infringement suit against Netflix, among others, for the upcoming movie Enola Holmes. A series of books by Nancy Springer, also named in the lawsuit, inspired the movie. While focused on the famous detective’s sister, Enola Holmes, the movie does also feature Sherlock Holmes. The Doyle estate bases their copyright infringement claim on the emotional character differences of Sherlock Holmes between the pre- and post-1923 works.
Pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes Works
The Doyle Estate is not a stranger to copyright litigation. In 2014, the Estate lost copyright rights in all of the stories authored before 1923. Prior to 1978, copyrights lasted for 95 years from the date of publication. This is assuming renewal of the copyright in the 28th year. As such, the court found that the works had fallen into the public domain and were free to use. In these works, Sherlock Holmes was portrayed as aloof and lacking empathy. They assert that these qualities are crucial aspects of his character that are currently in the public domain.
In the current case, the complaint alleges the movie portrays Holmes as a “warmer” character having emotions and feelings. The Estate alleges the last 10 original stories, authored by Doyle between 1923 and 1927, portray Holmes as being warm and caring. These stories are still under copyright. The complaint states, “[w]hile Sherlock Holmes is famous for his great powers of observation and logic, he is almost as famous for being aloof and unemotional.” In contrast, the movie depicts an emotional Holmes which is only depicted in the works that are still covered by copyright.
The complaint states, “[a]fter the stories that are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories, the Great War happened. In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.” After this, Doyle surprisingly wrote his most famous character, known for being “a brain without a heart”, to express emotions and have friendships. The complaint provides several examples of this more empathetic character.
Can a copyright protect the development of emotions in a character? Is the emotional depiction of Sherlock Holmes in the movie somehow derivative? It will likely be an uphill battle for the Estate to prove copyright infringement based on character development of emotions. It will be interesting to see how this case is decided.