Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sues Netflix’s Enola Holmes: Work in Public Domain
Author: Aashna Manocha
Designation: Law Student, Symbiosis Law School, Noida
Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org
This distinct case was filed on 23rd June 2020 by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate against the movie Enola Holmes based on Nancy Springer’s series of novels. The plaintiff argued that the movies’ depiction of public domain character Sherlock Holmes having emotions and respect for women violates their copyright. After World War I, Doyle was greatly affected by the demise of his brother and eldest son which is why Sherlock Holmes incorporated the quoted emotions and respect for women in stories written between 1923 and 1927. It also claims that the characteristics of the protagonist Enola Holmes assimilates “human connection and empathy” which were only displayed by the detective in the copyrighted books. They are not only suing Netflix but also Nancy Springer, her publisher Penguin Random House and the film’s production company as well as the director for uncounted damages.
According to a series of court rulings in early 2010s in the USA, none of the work by Doyle is under the bandwidth of copyright, except for the 10 stories released in 1923. The estate claimed the movie to have drawn indispensable elements from the 10 stories. The character of Sherlock Holmes being aloof and unemotional has been presented in front of the audience and is in the public domain. But the dropping of copyright has caused the character to have multiple personalities and contradicting emotions.
The only issue which puts a common man in a pickle is regarding how the adaptation of Enola Holmes violates the copyrighted work and not the previous television as well as the film adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. It is because in the UK, copyright expires after 70 years of the death of the author. In 2000 the character Sherlock was in the public domain. Hence, the adaptation was done there.
Copyright Law in case of works in Public Domain
Works which come under the public domain may be used without any apparent restrictions. Work may come under the public domain in different ways. The first one being the works whose copyrights have expired are in the public domain. The length of the term of copyright is the life of the author plus an additional 70 years in the United States where the movie has been released. Second, works are in the public domain if the author waives the copyright (voluntary relinquishment) and they automatically come under the global public domain. Third, works which were never supposed to be copyrighted come under the public domain. For example, non- fixed works, ideas, facts etc.
Trademark Law violation
The Estate also asserted a trademark violation in the given action: the word “Holmes” in the movie title as well as content over which the Estate has an alleged trade mark.
The foremost argument given by the plaintiff was around the stated fact that the last ten stories of Sherlock Holmes are still under copyright protection and not in the public domain. By depicting that the character has emotions and respect for the fronting gender the defendants have violated the copyright.
The defendants argue to dismiss the motion. The nebulous and generic characteristics such as emotion or kindness cannot come under the purview of copyright.
In the case of Blehm v. JacobThe reliance upon the contention that to determine copyright infringement unprotected ideas need to be separated from expression as copyright only protects “particularised expressions of idea and not just idea” was taken up by the Defendants. The said traits were in the public domain when Nancy Springer published her works, so a copyright infringement case against it holds no ground.
Through a simple scrutiny of the case it can be revealed that the said copyright infringement case comes out to be a misuse of the copyright laws as it’s a stated fact that ideas cannot be copyrighted and the above-mentioned general traits like happiness, respect, sadness etc. are unprotected ideas and cannot be copyrighted. Not to forget, all the work was already in the public domain.
Talking about the trademark infringement claim asserted by the Plaintiffs, it is put forward by the defendants that the use of word “Holmes” is a use which does not cause confusion in the minds of the public or mislead them over the source of the claimed work.
But the mere mention of “Holmes” in the adaptation of Enola Holmes gives an indication to the public that it may be a production of the Plaintiff. So, for the defendants to dodge the trademark infringement claim can be an arduous task.
The said suit has been filed after a significant delay considering the works of Nancy Springer were released between 2006-2010. It clearly indicates the hidden intentions of the Plaintiffs keeping in mind the fact that the remaining work of the Estate is expected to expire in 3 years and thus, was a capricious step taken by the estate as no copyright violation case was brought up against Springer for nearly fifteen years.
1. Arwa Mahadavi, “The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes evolving emotions”, (The Guardian, 2020), <https://www.theguardian.com/books/ >, accessed 21 November 2020
2.  United States Court of Appeal Tenth Circuit