When Sherlock Holmes is Not in the Public Domain

Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is. Even if you haven’t read one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories featuring the famous detective, you’ve no doubt seen, or at least heard of, one of the many adaptations of Holmes and his adventures into other works of fiction, from other books and short stories, to movies and TV shows. He is known as the cold, calculating detective who sees clues everywhere, but is either incapable of taking into consideration the feelings of the people around him, or just lacks the patience to do so.

That is the Sherlock Holmes of the public domain, but later stories written by Doyle show a softer side – someone who has become more considerate in general, and more respectful towards women in particular. That version of the detective is not yet in the public domain, which forms the basis of a copyright lawsuit against Netflix, Nancy Springer, and Random House, among others.

The copyright lawsuit focused on Enola Holmes, a series of young adult books written by Springer, published by Random House, and adapted into a film starring Millie Bobby Brown that was released on Netflix in 2020. Enola is Sherlock’s younger sister and proves equally capable of solving mysteries. Both the books and the film portray a Sherlock (played by Henry Cavill in the film) who starts out dismissive of his younger sister, but gradually grows warmer towards her as she grows on him, and it is those latter characteristics that prompted the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to file their copyright lawsuit.

Despite the fact that the character of Sherlock Holmes is more than a century old, and most of the stories featuring him are in the public domain, a few of Doyle’s later mysteries are not yet in the public domain. The few stories that are still protected by copyright are the ones that show a more sympathetic detective, which is why the Enola Holmes books and film prompted the copyright lawsuit.

This is not the first lawsuit the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has filed over the few Sherlock Holmes stories that still remain protected by copyright. The estate also sued Miramax over the movie, Mr. Holmes, which was released in theaters in 2015 and starred Ian McKellen in the title role. That movie also showed a friendlier and more sympathetic side to the retired detective, which formed the basis of the copyright lawsuit. That case was settled outside of court.

Everyone involved in the Enola Holmes lawsuit, including the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, recently petitioned the court to have the case dismissed, which suggests the parties reached a settlement.

Copyright laws are more complicated than most people realize, with the duration of the copyright varying based on when and where the work was originally published. While most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are in the public domain, ten of his stories were published in the 1920s, and while some of those stories have been entering the public domain since 2016, others remain under copyright until January 1st, 2023.

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