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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.
Back in June, the Conan Doyle Estate filed the suit over Enola Holmes, a film starring Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock Holmes’ remarkable sister. The case was surprising given that most of the Sherlock Holmes canon is in the public domain, confirmed by prior courts. To get around the fact that anyone can create stories about the famous detective without infringing Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th century work, the Conan Doyle Estate leaned on 10 original stories authored between 1923 and 1927 — ones that (at some point) remained under copyright. The plaintiff asserted that the difference between the public domain stories and the copyrighted ones was a Sherlock Holmes who develops empathy in the latter series. That feeling (plus trademarks) was alleged to have been infringed.
In response, 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 the settlement.
Perhaps the only thing this lawsuit really accomplished was shining some light on those purporting to protect unauthorized copying of Sherlock Holmes stories. According to court papers, Jean Conan Doyle — the author’s last surviving child — recaptured copyrights thanks to changes in the 1976 Copyright Act. She died in 1997, and is survived by other family members. Meanwhile, the estate has a “licensing representative,” Jon Lellenberg, who is also a shareholder and lives in New Mexico.
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