Saturday, September 14, 2013

And now, Sybil Holmes.

That bizarre legal entity calling itself "Conan Doyle Estate Ltd." has finally made its countermove in the "Free Sherlock" case, and things are getting strange indeed.

As a counterpoint to Klinger and company's argument that the character of Sherlock Holmes is defined and useable from all the stories that are currently out of copyright -- thus making Estate Ltd.'s attempts at licensing of the character moot -- the Ltd. folk are claiming that splitting off the last ten stories gives Holmes multiple personalities.

Of course, the Estate Ltd. is ignoring the fact that Sherlock Holmes has had multiple personalities for over a hundred years. Father Ronald Knox pointed out in 1911 that Sherlock Holmes pre-Reichenbach and Sherlock Holmes post-Reichenbach had two different personalities.

They're also ignoring the fact that the Estate Ltd. has been licensing multiple personalities for Sherlock Holmes for years as well. Do Downey, Cumberbatch, and Miller seem like the same guy to you? And those three are just the tip of that iceberg.

It's nice they're concerned about Holmes's mental health, I suppose, and not just fencing off a cultural landmark as an investment strategy, but let's think about this for a moment.

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet is a very different person from Sherlock Holmes in "His Last Bow." Why? Because we grow and develop as human beings. From Estate Ltd.'s perspective, we all have multiple personalities, because our five-year-old self, whom one could write one sort of tale about, is the same person as our eighty-year-old self, of whom we'd write a geriatric tale. If you break off the traits of the five-year-year old for a story, you're infringing upon the turf of the person writing the eighty-year-old's story.

In a real, actual person, that five-year-old and that eighty-year-old are the same person, and the claim might make sense. But then, of course, if we're going to legally establish Sherlock Holmes as a real person, well, then, the Estate Ltd. folks are totally out of luck -- they can't claim to own him. But we're talking about a creature of story, a legend, with defined characteristics, quotes, and dressing gown colors that can be documented to the nth degree. We know if a pastiche is using material out of "The Red-headed League," with a simple bit of research.

Estate Ltd. can have their ten stories and all that they contain. As long as a writer is writing about Sherlock Holmes in 1887, using only those details we've learned about Holmes in his stories outside of Casebook (all of which took place 1898 or after), a Sherlock Holmes can be created entirely out of non-copyrighted details. And most stories of Sherlock Holmes that people want to write tend to occur well before 1898, where the copyrights come into play.

Let their lawyers chase down sloppy pasticheurs who use 1898-and-after details in Holmes stories taking place in the 1880s. If that's fun for them, they can have at it and be well within their rights. But knocking on the door of movie studios wanting to film a Holmes/Moriarty duel? Not their turf.

The courts, of course, now have to take their usually painfully long time to sort this out. But if they let the Estate Ltd. crowd get by on just that silly argument, well, t'will be another sad day to be an American.

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