The author who created Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has been dead for seven decades — but producers behind Netflix’s 2020 film Enola Holmes say the writer’s estate is unfairly trying to prevent creators from using the iconic detective character in original works.
Conan Doyle’s estate in June sued Netflix, Legendary Pictures, The Enola Holmes Mysteries author Nancy Springer and others associated with the Millie Bobby Brown-led film, including screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer. The movie center’s on Brown’s Enola, Sherlock’s younger sister, and stars Henry Cavill as the famous sleuth.
More than 50 of the author’s novels and short stories about Sherlock Holmes are “undeniably in the public domain,” the defendants argue in a motion to dismiss filed Friday, adding that the estate is trying to force third parties to pay for using the character in their works.
The estate had argued that traits exhibited by the iconic detective in the later, still-protected works — being warmer, more empathetic and respectful of women — were used in the film in violation of its copyrights.
Attorney for the defendants, Nicolas Jampol of Davis Wright Tremaine, argues it’s a “fundamental tenet” of copyright law that ideas aren’t protectable and neither are general feelings, emotions and personality traits.
“In this case, even if the Emotion Trait and Respect Trait were original to copyright protected works, which they are not, they are unprotectable ideas,” writes Jampol. “Copyright law does not allow the ownership of generic concepts like warmth, kindness, empathy, or respect, even as expressed by a public domain character — which, of course, belongs to the public, not Plaintiff.”
Jampol then runs through a list of public domain works in which Holmes demonstrates those characteristics, including an example of the detective treating a woman with “nothing but kindness and respect” in an 1892 story. Jampol also argues that the estate’s claim that Holmes’ “great interest” in dogs and friendship with Dr. Watson are protectable are irrelevant because Watson isn’t in the movie and there aren’t any scenes in which Sherlock interacts with dogs.
The Conan Doyle estate is also suing for trademark infringement because the film’s title contains the name Holmes. Jampol argues that claim should be dismissed because the title Enola Holmes has artistic relevance to the movie and it doesn’t “explicitly mislead” the public into thinking the estate is connected to it.
“Here, Plaintiff attempts to use trademark law to do what copyright law can no longer do: prevent others from freely using and adapting Sherlock Holmes in their own works,” writes Jampol. “But this is not the function of trademark law. Allowing Plaintiff to prevent the creation of new works featuring public domain material runs contrary to the ‘carefully crafted bargain’ embodied in copyright law, and Plaintiff’s attempt to create a perpetual copyright should be rejected.”
Read the full motion below.