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Ahead of the Netflix release of Enola Holmes, a film about Sherlock Holmes’ exceptional sister, the Conan Doyle Estate has filed a new lawsuit claiming copyright infringement and trademark violations. The complaint was filed Tuesday in New Mexico federal court and targets Netflix, Legendary Pictures, Penguin Random House and others, including author Nancy Springer, whose book series forms the basis of the new movie starring Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things).
Back in 2014, the Doyle Estate rather famously lost most of its hold on Sherlock Holmes when it was ruled that all of the stories authored about the iconic fictional detective before 1923 were in the public domain. Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner rejected the argument that Sherlock Holmes is a “complex” character, that his background and attributes had been created over time, and that to deny copyright on the whole Sherlock Holmes character would be tantamount to giving the famous detective “multiple personalities.”
But the ruling didn’t strip away the Doyle Estate’s hold on his last 10 original stories authored between 1923 and 1927 — for whatever they are worth. After all, only original elements to those stories fall under copyright (at least for now). Also not protected is any scène à faire.
In the latest lawsuit, the Doyle Estate alleges that the difference between the public domain stories and the copyrighted ones is emotions.
“After the stories that are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories, the Great War happened,” states the complaint. “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.”
And so Sherlock “became warmer,” continues the complaint, setting up the question of whether the development of feelings is something that can be protected by copyright and whether the alleged depiction of Sherlock in Enola Holmes is somehow derivative.
This isn’t the first time that the Doyle Estate has attempted to leverage the last remaining stories. In 2015, the plaintiff sued Miramax over Mr. Holmes, a suit that was later settled.
The latest complaint also includes trademark claims that will likely have to somehow dodge the Supreme Court’s decision in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film, which frowned on overextending trademark protections to works no longer under the grips of copyright.
Legendary hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.
Here’s a full copy of the complaint. According to the complaint, the film will be released in August, although that hasn’t been confirmed yet. The Doyle Estate seeks to enjoin defendants from further infringing intellectual property. A separate injunction motion has yet to be filed.
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