If there’s one thing we apparently can’t ever get enough of apart, obviously, from reality TV featuring fat orange people making poor decisions, it’s Sherlock Holmes.
In fact I have it on sound speculation that there hasn’t been a period of more than six months since Holmes first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual — 1887’s version of prime time TV — during which the Great Detective hasn’t been the subject of a first-run movie or TV series or radio program or McDonald’s tie-in.
And if you think another pending Robert Downey Jr turn as Conan-Doyle’s wise-crackin’, karate-fightin’, Watson-flusterin’ detective overlapping with the contemporary takes of Sherlock and Elementary amounts to a world without nearly enough Holmes in it then I have some marvelous news for you.
As of December 23rd Holmes is public domain in America. you might have fairly assumed that the character was already free of copyright restrictions because an absence of any sort of oversight is the only explanation for the free-for-all that’s resulted in decades of pastiches teaming Holmes up with Dr. Who and Charlie Chaplin and pitting him against Jack the Ripper and Fu Manchu and Dracula and, for Christ’s sake, Cthulhu.
But, curiously, no. All that happened under the faithful stewardship of the Doyle estate which dutifully charged a license fee for permission to do whatever the hell you wanted to the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. And now even that barrier has been removed by Illinois Federal Judge Ruben Castillo, ruling in favor of author Leslie Klinger (who is equal part lawyer) and his relatively respectful project In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of Holmes-inspired short stories by various authors.
An intriguing twist in the ruling recognizes the distinction between original Holmes stories published before 1923 and consequently in the public domain and that which came after. Lawyers for the Doyle estate are naturally scandalized by the granular ruling, which they contend will fracture the legacy so scrupulously nurtured by its lawful caretakers. They claim that unless reversed on appeal the decision will create…
…multiple personalities out of Sherlock Holmes: a “public domain” version of his character attempting to only use only public domain traits, next to the true character Sir Arthur created. But there are not sixty versions of Sherlock Holmes in the sixty stories; there is one complex Sherlock Holmes.
So it’s the integrity of Sherlock Holmes that the Doyle estate is defending, and not or at least not exclusively its privilege of profiting from any and every drug-fueled adolescent displacement fantasy in which any character or characters no matter how minor are called “Holmes”. But even if that were a praiseworthy objective (and it most manifestly isn’t) it would hold a good deal more water if the Doyle estate had any sort of track record to present to the court. Well it doesn’t. What it has instead is an unbroken history of rubber-stamping any project willing to pay to have its way with this “single complex character” named in the suit.
In fact Holmes has already been given multiple personalities with the explicit approval of the copyright holders and — if that’s not enough of an abdication of whatever principles they’re claiming to support — one of those personalities turned out to be Jack the Ripper and another, only slightly more predictably, was Moriarity. These are developments to which no one who respects the artful appropriations of Romeo and Juliet and Ivanhoe and inventive re-imaginings of Holmes like Elementary and Sherlock and House can reasonably object. And to do so now as the core of a spurious legal argument is, charitably speaking, disingenuous.
I hope when the Doyle estate loses their appeal there’s some recognition of the irony of the position in which they’ve placed themselves — had they ever actually been acting as the Department of Quality Control they’re now claiming to be then they’d at least have something left to sell apart from the ten stories which remain under copyright protection; they’d have the Doyle name and a seal of approval from his nominal heirs.
If Sherlock Holmes has any protection at all it’s probably the simple fact that things can’t get much worse. He’s already been depicted as a drug addict and a madman and a time traveler and a space traveler and a Basset Hound. His biography and family history has been written many more times than has that of most people who actually had a biography and a family history and even the most peripherally related has had a whirl as a private eye, including Enola, Holmes’ little sister and Watson’s second wife, Amelia.
The single advantage that I can see of this new atmosphere of decidedly un-Holmesian abandon is that I’m now free to write my own mash-up, or at least I will be, just as soon as copyright protection expires on The Shadow and Winnie the Pooh and the final seals are removed from the findings of the Warren Commission.
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