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Netflix and Others Face Copyright Lawsuit Over Enola Holmes Movie

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Netflix and Others Face Copyright Lawsuit Over Enola Holmes Movie

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Netflix, Legendary Pictures Production, and others including author Nancy Springer are all facing a copyright infringement lawsuit over the new movie Enola Holmes, filed by the Conan Doyle Estate.

This complaint alleges that the author of the Enola Holmes books and other parties involved in the making of the movie committed copyright infringement by presenting a softer Sherlock Holmes than the one presented in Doyle’s public domain works.

Enola Holmes was released in late September, 2020, attracting a lot of attention as a Sherlock Holmes spin-off.

In this movie, actress Millie Bobby Brown plays Enola Holmes, the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes (played by Henry Cavill) with the same knack for solving mysteries. When Enola’s mother goes missing, her older brothers Mycroft and Sherlock return home to help. However, when her older brothers don’t get the answers she wants, Enola sets out on her own to solve the mystery.

Interestingly enough, adding a younger, mystery-solving sister to the Holmes legacy was not an issue for the Conan Doyle Estate. While many found this new spin on the Holmes family quite refreshing, the Conan Doyle Estate found the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in this movie to be problematic regarding reasons of copyright.

Conan Doyle’s last ten stories, collected in the book The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, are still under copyright.

Sherlock Holmes’s story began in 1887 with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella A Study in Scarlet. The characters in this story, in addition to those in other Holmes publications occurring before 1923, are all part of the public domain. This means that creators can adapt these characters in their own stories without fears of copyright infringement. However, between the publication of the initial stories now in the public domain and the last ten stories written from 1923 to 1927, World War I occurred. This seems to be the crux of the argument made by the Conan Doyle Estate regarding the changes in Sherlock Holmes’s character in the pre-war, public domain publications, and the post-war, copyrighted publications.

When Conan Doyle returned to writing after the war, he made considerable changes to the characters.

During the war, Conan Doyle lost his brother and his son. When he returned to writing after the war, the Sherlock Holmes he created was significantly changed. This new Sherlock was considerably gentler, warmer, and more sensitive to the lives and feelings of others. This post-war, copyrighted Sherlock was much more the type of Sherlock Holmes that audiences were exposed to in the Enola Holmes movie, but is a far-cry from the Sherlock presented in the original public domain works.

While some believe this lawsuit lacks merit, the Conan Doyle Estate brings up a good point; the newer, softer Sherlock has been licensed for use in similar productions.

The official complaint points out that, “These new characteristics have been licensed for use in every major new Sherlock Holmes story, and are a substantial part of the characters known to movie-goers and television watchers around the world.” The complaint goes on to allege that the defendants in the case refused to do anything more than credit Conan Doyle, taking advantage of the fact that the copyright is in its final years to avoid pursuing proper licensing requirements.

This does bring up an interesting precedent: considering that other movies and television productions portraying a version of the gentler Sherlock from the copyrighted works were required to license those characteristics, it seems unusual that Enola Holmes would not also be required to do so.

The Conan Doyle Estate is a United Kingdom corporation founded by the family of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1976, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last surviving child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, recovered the copyrights for her late father’s works. Since then, the family has attempted to protect the legacy of Conan Doyle and his famous stories, ensuring that storytellers follow all applicable copyright laws and licensing agreements to protect the legacy of Sherlock Holmes, and preserve his unique impact for future storytellers and audiences alike.

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