When last we checked in on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s posthumous intellectual property enforcement activities (“Conan Doyle Estate Down for the Count“), his estate’s attempt to enjoin publication of a collection of original Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Sherlock, was rejected in an opinion written by Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. In that case Doyle’s literary heirs argued that although only the final 10 Sherlock Holmes stories (first published after 1922) remain under copyright, while the remainder of the canon is in the public domain, any secondary work using characters and story elements that were not fully “rounded out” until those final installments–most notably Holmes and Dr. Watson–infringed the still-extant copyrights.
Judge Posner, however, ruled that the copyrights on the final 10 stories protected only those literary elements that were “original” to those stories, for example, Holmes’s late-life change of attitude toward dogs. Using the road map Judge Posner provided, the Conan Doyle Estate has now filed a complaint against Miramax Films seeking to enjoin release of its forthcoming film, Mr. Holmes, which allegedly uses story elements that were first introduced in the Conan Doyle stories that remain under copyright.
The Conan Doyle Estate has not actually been privy to a print of Mr. Holmes. Indeed, the primary target of the complaint is not the film, but a novel by Mitch Cullin, A Slight Trick of the Mind, on which the film is based. The novel is set during Holmes’s retirement, a period which Arthur Conan Doyle first plumbed in the latter installments of his franchise. The complaint states:
“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” significantly develops the fictional world of Holmes’s later life. In this story Conan Doyle created original details such as the lonely farmhouse in which Holmes lives on a ridge overlooking the English Channel, with chalk cliffs visible in the distance and a path down to the sea. Along with other copyrighted stories, “Lion’s Mane” also adds important traits to Holmes’ character. For example, in his later years, living in the countryside instead of London, Holmes comes to love nature and dedicates himself to studying it. Other copyrighted stories give Holmes in his later years a personal warmth and the capacity to express love for the first time.
Cullin, the complaint alleges,
took these and many other protected elements of setting, plot, and character in A Slight Trick of the Mind. Cullin has Holmes living in a lonely farmhouse on a ridge over the Channel. Chalk cliffs are visible in the distance and a path leads down to the sea. Holmes’s love of nature and developing ability to express love are central to Cullin’s story.
But most telling and dastardly of all, the ultimate proof that Cullin did not independently imagine his own senescence for Sherlock Holmes, is this:
Cullin also took from copyrighted stories that Holmes has gotten over his distaste for dogs and has come to love them. Conan Doyle creates this development in a copyrighted story and has Holmes plan to write a monograph on “the uses of dogs in the work of the detective.” Cullin takes Holmes’s love for dogs from this story and has him write a monograph titled The Use of Dogs in the Work of the Detective.
This time it may be the dog that does bark that solves the case. We await the response of Miramax and Cullin’s publisher, Random House.