Arthur Conan Doyle’s Estate Sues Netflix

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Sign of the well-known Conan Doyle Pub

The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has sued Netflix for its upcoming film Enola Holmes. It argues that the movie’s depiction of the public domain character, Sherlock Holmes, having emotions and respecting women violates Doyle’s copyright.

Written by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes is based on a series of novels. It stars a newly created teenage sister of the famous detective. 

They feature several elements from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and copyright doesn’t cover most of these elements. Thanks to a series of court rulings in the early 2010s. 

However, Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate still owns the details from 10 stories. It argues that Springer’s books, and by extension Netflix’s adaptation, draw key elements from those stories. 

It’s suing not only Netflix. It’s also suing Springer, her publisher Penguin Random House, and the film’s production company for unspecified financial damages.

The estate made a similar argument five years ago in a lawsuit against Miramax for its film Mr. Holmes. It claimed Mr. Holmes included plot details about his retirement, which only happens in the final stories. This was among other arguments.

But its new argument is a lot more abstract. Basically, if this film wants Sherlock Holmes to express emotions, its creators need to pay up.

Respecting Women: Covered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Copyright?

The complaint alleges that Holmes is famously “aloof and unemotional in the public domain stories.” And then, that changed because of his creator’s life experiences.

The Great War happened after the stories, which are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories. Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley, in World War I. 

He lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle four months later. Conan Doyle returned to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927. However, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. 

Holmes needed to be human and his character needed to develop human connection and empathy. Conan Doyle made the surprising artistic move to change his most famous character. Known around the world as a brain without a heart, to develop into a character with a heart. 

Holmes became warmer and became capable of friendship. He could express emotion and he began to respect women. 

He also started liking dogs, which a judge described as a potentially protected trait.

Street view of The Conan Doyle Pub

Losing Copyright gave Sherlock Holmes Multiple Personalities

A report notes that Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate fought the partial public domain ruling. It was unsuccessfully arguing that Holmes slowly became a complex figure who needed full copyright protection to remain coherent. The estate claimed that losing copyright to some of the stories gave Sherlock Holmes “multiple personalities.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate now says Springer and Netflix base the film Enola Holmes on the personality that’s still protected. And the new personality’s key traits include relating to other people and reacting with “warmth and emotion” to a female.

The female character happens to be his immediate family. In other words, they’re some of the most basic updates any author might make to a century-old character. 

The complaint filed even includes some fun literary analysis on what a hardcore jerk the original Holmes was:

Watson, his closest companion, revered Holmes and was generous in his admiration. But to Holmes, Watson was utilitarian. He was to be employed when useful, then set aside. 

Holmes did not treat him with warmth. Holmes told him that he had a grand gift for silence, making him quite invaluable as a companion. This was included in the movie The Man with the Twisted Lip.

Holmes did not even congratulate Watson when he told Holmes he was going to marry Holmes’s client, Mary Morstan.

Funnily, it also suggests the copyright specifically covers Sherlock Holmes caring if Watson is injured or kidnapped. This may come as a surprise to the character’s massive following.

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