Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Estate Sues Netflix over a Sherlock Holmes Story

There is little room for disagreement that Netflix has upped its game during COVID-19, providing high-quality content that has become the talk of the country. However, not everyone is fully amused by and supportive of Netflix's efforts. The company has recently been sued by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over its upcoming film Enola Holmes. The lawsuit claims that the online giant has not fully respected the estate's copyright of the famous character Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle created and wrote about the famous detective. His estate owns the copyright, but thanks to a 2010 court ruling, others can use some aspects of the character in their stories. Sherlock Holmes was invented so long ago that some of the copyright protections have expired. Copyright laws only permit a 95-year period of protection. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, only ten of the books that Doyle wrote would still be protected by copyright.

The estate has made the case that, despite the fact that the character dates back to the late 1800s, Sherlock Holmes is still a dynamic character who is still evolving even after copyright protection has purportedly expired.

Here, Netflix is working to make a film adaptation of books written by a character named Enola Holmes. Netflix is preparing to distribute the movie beginning in August 2020. The author, Nancy Springer, has written six novels in her series entitled Enola Holmes.

The Estate Claims that Details in Protected Books Cannot Be Referenced Here

The plaintiff acknowledges that the character Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and can be used in a movie. Here, the specific issue that has resulted in the lawsuit is that the defendant's movie was developing the character beyond how he appeared in previous versions of the novels. Everyone knows that the original Sherlock Holmes was an aloof character who kept his emotions in check.

There are still ten Sherlock Holmes novels that are protected by copyright laws based on the time that they were written. In these novels, Conan Doyle developed the character and made him more emotive. The latter Sherlock Holmes novels featured a different character than readers originally knew. According to the estate, this is a changed character from the one who is now in the public domain.

Accordingly, the plaintiff argues that any character in a movie today who is based on any features of the Sherlock Holmes character who is still protected by copyright is a violation of the estate's rights.

The complaint cites numerous personality transformations in the ten protected novels that are expounded upon in the Spring novels. According to the estate, some of the events that are referred to in these new books directly reference developments in the protected novels. The plaintiffs specifically reference public statements made by the author that she had the full set of Sherlock Holmes novels growing up, including the ten works that are still protected.

According to the plaintiffs, the author of the new books and Netflix needed to specifically ask permission from the estate to use any material that references the ten protected works, The lawsuit claims that they mistakenly assumed that the entire Sherlock Holmes character was in the public domain. The plaintiff advances a bifurcated view of the character that only has him partially in the public domain.

The lawsuit seeks a court ruling that would enjoin the defendants from being able to publish works based on the copyrighted material. The estate is also seeking monetary damages from the author, her publisher and Netflix to be determined by the court. The estate also seeks to take the profits that the author previously made off of the book.

The Estate Has Fought Years of Legal Battles

The estate has tried numerous different ways to fight to protect its remaining copyright privileges. Some major producers have played ball with the estate and have worked with them to meet the demands of the estate. However, Netflix has not reached out to the family to address their concerns, hence the lawsuit. The estate has had some difficulty in previous lawsuits but has tried numerous different arguments in subsequent proceedings.

In 2015, the estate sued Miramax using similar arguments that it raises in the case against Netflix. The estate reached a settlement with the defendants that left it "very pleased." Thus, the estate tries to file a similar lawsuit to reach the same results that it attained in the other case.

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