Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The Light And The Legal Fury

A slight trick of copyright law
Thou shalt not put Sherlock Holmes in a comfortable chair if the narration makes mention of lighting or a guest's discomfort.

That about sums up the latest legal fury around the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Isn't Sherlock Holmes now in the public domain, you ask as you pause in your writing, the fanfic piece nearly complete and images of dollar signs dancing in your head. The copyright expired long ago and anyone can use the Holmes character. It's perfectly legal to write a short story or a full-length novel with Sherlock Holmes solving a case.

To an extent that is true, but lawsuits filed by the descendants of Mr. Doyle have carved out a little block of Holmes-ian details that were published late enough to still fall under copyright law. You may write a Sherlock Holmes story if you wish, but you have to watch what you have Mr. Holmes say or do.

Filmmaker Miramax is discovering the headaches of this splitting of hairs issue. The Doyle estate has sued them for copyright infringement because they have made a movie based on a novel that features Sherlock Holmes in retirement, called out to solve another case.

Sorry, the estate's lawyer says, but that story contains 1923-1927 material you've lifted and you owe us money for the right to use our property.

The novel on which this upcoming film is based was published in 2005, but only now that the book has gone to film has the estate given notice. They are suing author Mitch Cullin, as well as Penguin Random House. The publisher is already dealing with lawsuits filed by those who felt defrauded by the Penguin's Author Solutions branch, so the legal department is really earning its keep these days.

As it turns out, Arthur Conan Doyle did not write about the retired Sherlock Holmes until the 1920s. Like any author, he added various elements to the character to make Sherlock Holmes move with the times, and those elements if included in a new work using Holmes would fall under the copyright law.

Mitch Cullin's version of Holmes is the retiree, which the estate admits is fine because Holmes was retired in stories that have fallen out of copyright. What Mr. Cullin did that brought on the heat was to set a scene based on a description written by Doyle in the 1920's, in which Holmes sits in a chair and puts his guest in a chair opposite, where the light shines full on the guest's face and obscures Holmes. In both Doyle's version and Cullin's version. the guest is rendered somewhat speechless. The passages sited in the lawsuit are so similar, in fact, that it's bordering on plagiarism.

The estate wants their cut of the profits from both book sales and movie box office receipts. No need to pull the film or the book. What benefit to anyone in that case? Just send the check and we'll bestow the official Arthur Conan Doyle stamp of approval after the fact.

Sherlock Holmes is still a popular fictional character, and still draws movie-goers into the theaters. With Ian McKellin in the starring role, it's sure to be a blockbuster hit. Miramax wouldn't want to pass that up if they can come to a reasonable agreement. After all, they've already spent a lot of money to make the film in the first place. A few more dollars won't hurt. As long as the estate doesn't get greedy.

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