The Mystery Of The Copyright On Sherlock Holmes' Emotions Goes Unsolved Due To Settlement

from the unsolved-mysteries dept

Since this past summer we have been writing about a bonkers lawsuit brought against the makers of a Netflix movie, Enola Holmes, by the Conan Doyle Estate. The stories of Sherlock Holmes are, of course, largely in the public domain now, although roughly 10 tales still haven’t reached the expiration date of their copyright protection. The film does not tell any of those protected stories. Instead, it tells an original story, focused on Holmes’ sister, Enola. To make its copyright claim, the Estate instead suggests that Enola Holmes shows a Sherlock who has feelings and empathy, among other details, and therefore runs afoul of the character copyright as Sherlock didn’t show such features until those still-protected stories were written. Also, something about Sherlock developing a liking towards dogs. Yes, seriously.

Well, Netflix moved to have the case dismissed, going in quite hard on the details of the Estate’s claims. For starters, in Enola Holmes, um, no dogs. Added to that, the motion provides ample evidence of Sherlock having feelings and empathy prior to the protected works and that such ideas are not protectable anyway. The rest of us, meanwhile, waited patiently to see if the mystery of whether or not you could break copyright in this way could actually succeed in court.

Sadly, we’ll never know, as reportedly Netflix and the Estate have reached a settlement.

Is a more emotional Sherlock Holmes protected by copyright? Although that’s dubious, the mystery remains technically unsolved as Netflix, Legendary Pictures, and others associated with Enola Holmes have come to a settlement with the Conan Doyle Estate. On Friday, the parties stipulated to dismissal of a lawsuit in New Mexico federal court.

In response [to the suit], the producers blasted the suit as an “attempt to create a perpetual copyright,” arguing in a motion to dismiss that generic concepts like warmth and kindness don’t fall under protection.

The Conan Doyle Estate never took the chance to respond. Undoubtedly, its negotiating leverage would be stronger having defeated a dismissal motion, but the heirs to the author surely have their reasons for taking whatever they could in settlement.

As per usual, the details of the settlement were not released publicly. And while I’m sure readers here are sick and tired of hearing me complain about such opaque settlements, it is immensely frustrating when we get questions about protectable copyright elements where it would be nice to have some clear court rulings to not get any. Given what the Estate was up against based on the merits of its attempt to create perpetual copyright, it’s hard to imagine it made out particularly well in the settlement, but for now all we can do is guess.

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Companies: conan doyle estate, netflix

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Comments on “The Mystery Of The Copyright On Sherlock Holmes' Emotions Goes Unsolved Due To Settlement”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Frank Cox (profile) says:

Should confidential settlements be allowed?

I’m not convinced that confidential settlements should be allowed in court cases. If the case was important enough to bring to court (with all of the associated costs to the taxpayer as well as the participants) then it should be important enough for any settlements to be filed as a public document.

Otherwise you end up with a situation where someone litigious can just continually file-and-settle until he manages to find a sucker and cash in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Should confidential settlements be allowed?

The problem here is that you do end up with cases where victims involved in court cases would then be subject to scrutiny and further harassment based on those terms – which is why extrajudicial settlements for copyright are desirable, because people on the losing or unfavorable end generally don’t want the information public.

Of course, this does fuel unreasonable plaintiffs to continue their unscrupulous pursuits, but until more checks and balances are put in this is a problem across all parts of law.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Should confidential settlements be allowed?

I agree with you as a citizen who would love to know the facts of the case, and believe once it’s filed in court it should be public.

I disagree on the concept that if the two businesses decide to take it out of court… whether on a settlement (like in this case), a stip (many cases), a pre-arranged resolution (like a divorce with a pre-nup) then it is up to the parties.

Analogy below as to divorce cases… which are really similar to this.

As a member of the public… as I’ve said, I REALLY WANT TO KNOW the details of this settlement. As a business owner I understand that sometimes the two sides may wish to work things out in private.

Divorce Analogy: Just because one person filed in court and the second person responded… if they decide to work out things privately because think of the kids … that’s their right. While it WAS filed in court OUR right as "the public" does not trump their right to remove it from the courts and "settle" it in person.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page… I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE SETTLEMENT… just not sure that overrides their right to keep it from me…


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Nathan F (profile) says:

Re: Re: Should confidential settlements be allowed?

The difference between the Holmes settlement and a prenup divorce settlement.. is that the Holmes settlement possible touches on the a matter of importance for the public. Namely the public domain issue of the Holmes Estate claim of a "more emotionally mature Sherlock who likes dogs". For the divorce case there isn’t much of interest to the public there.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Mystery solved

No mystery there. Where there’s profit to be had someone will try to get it, and there’s nothing quite as grift focussed as heirs to a fortune they had no hand in creating.

The only real mystery is how anyone can think that a system that allows people to sue over individual personality traits of one of the most popular and commonly adapted public domain figures, just because they’re tangentially related to someone who died 80 years ago, is a good thing.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Mystery solved

No… Holmes’s earlier stories (anything published before 1922) are indeed public domain. The issue here is that there are still handful of later works that aren’t public domain, so people get sued for involving character traits introduced in those stories, even if they’re adapting the public domain works or creating original stories using the characters.

Unless something changes, these later works are expected to enter the public domain in 2022, hence the recent attacks from Doyle’s estate to claw in as much money as they can before they have to share the wealth.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No, inheritors of valuable intellectual property

No, they’re inheritors of valuable intellectual property. And far better them having control than some idiots at Netflix ruining the legacy for everyone — as "Hollywood" is doing with more current "franchises", by re-casting with "minority" and "women" in the leads.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: No, inheritors of valuable intellectual property

Netflix with billions can’t come up with any good premises?

But has to reach back into the 19th century? — That’s accurate for the state of "creativity" today. They have to leach off the good old stuff. (LeAch (sic), not LeEch because they’re dissolving / reducing the value.)

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