Another day, another case for the Sherlock Holmes. After a crushing copyright defeat just a short while ago, the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle filed a lawsuit against the makers of Miramax’s new Mr. Holmes movie featuring Sir Ian McKellen claiming the movie is a stolen from several of Doyle’s stories.
Beginning in the 1880’s, Doyle authored and published four novels and 56 short stories about the exploits of detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusted sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson. After a recent adverse ruling against the Doyle Estate the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held what most of us already knew, most of Sherlock’s tales are in the public domain.  This is why there are so many different versions of Sherlock in the movies and on television as the character is no longer protected under copyright. However,  10 stories post-1923 are not yet in the public domain and these stories cannot be exploited without consent of the Estate. You can read more about what is and what is not in the public domain here. The Estate also owns a registered trademark for the SHERLOCK HOLMES mark.
Miramax is set to release yet another version of Sherlock called Mr. Holmes. This one features Sir Ian McKellan as the older and retired Sherlock who is pulled into to an unresolved case; the movie is set for release on July 17, 2015. The film is based off of author Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Estate claims that two of the non-public domain stories make “references” to Holmes’s retirement and the retired detective living like a hermit. The Estate further claims that Mr. Holmes steals certain plot, character traits and settings for the new movie. For example, both stories feature a retired Holmes that loves nature, both detectives live in a villa with a view of “chalk cliffs”in the distance, and the character is now gentle and kind,traits the character did not have in the public domain stories. The complaint goes on to detail more similarities but most are general in nature and there does not appear to be any exact word-for-word copying of text or of plot details.
The Seventh Circuit did not look favorable on the Estate in its previous decision calling its threats of infringement a ** “disreputable business practice” **but apparently this hasn’t slow down litigation. The Estate asserts claims of copyright and trademark infringement. The trademark based on a character is the public domain appears weak and expect a big fight over the mark’s validity. The Estate seeks damages and a permanent injunction against the file. It is quite telling that the Estate does not seek, at this time, a preliminary injuction seeking to halt the release of this movie. This may be a sign that the Estate thinks it has a weak case or a cunning Sherlock-like tactic, we shall see when this story plays out.