Miramax Sued for Copyright Infringement Over Sherlock Holmes Movie

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued Miramax for copyright infringement over the planned release of the upcoming film Mr. Holmes – even though a US federal appeals court ruled a year ago that the character of Sherlock Holmes was – mostly – in the public domain.

The case is based on that “mostly.”

The “Incomplete” History of Sherlock Holmes?

Sherlock Holmes StatueDoyle introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet. Fifty-six short stories and three more novels followed, the last of which was published in 1927.

The character of Sherlock Holmes has appeared in at least hundreds of works in print, film, television, and other media. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the “most portrayed movie character” ever.

Holmes has been portrayed in over 200 films, starting with Sherlock Holmes Baffled in the year 1900.

In 2013, a Holmes scholar and author sought a declaratory judgment that the character of Sherlock Holmes, along with his famous address at 221B Baker Street, his nemesis Moriarty, and other story elements, were all in the public domain.

The Doyle estate made an unusual argument in response, contending that all of the Doyle novels and short stories were a unitary work that was not completed until 1927. If so, then the copyright term for all the works would not expire until 2022.

A federal district court rejected that argument. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision, with the judge finding that any new additions to the characters made after 1923 could be protected, but that “the alterations do not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters.” The US Supreme Court refused to hear the estate’s appeal.

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Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes, the latest addition to the Holmes filmography, was directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twlilight Saga: Breaking Dawn). The film stars Ian McKellen as Holmes and Laura Linney as his housekeeper.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film is set in 1947, when

an aging Holmes returns from a journey to Japan, where, in search of a rare plant with powerful restorative qualities, he has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare…. Grappling with the diminishing powers of his mind, Holmes … revisits an unsolved case that forced him into retirement, and searches for answers to the mysteries of life and love before it’s too late.

The Doyle estate claims that the movie, and the book upon which it is based, took elements from the Holmes stories published between 1923 and 1927, including  Holmes’ “personal warmth and the capacity to express love for the first time.”

The book and movie also clearly set the story near a ridge overlooking the English Channel “with chalk cliffs visible in the distance and a path down to the scene” – details the estate says appear only in copyrighted stories.

The complaint can be seen here.

If you have questions about when works enter the public domain, you may wish to consult a copyright attorney in your area.

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