Monday, July 7, 2014

If corporations are people, what is Sherlock Holmes?

Breaking news over the Google feed is suddenly looking like the fight to free Sherlock Holmes may have one more round in it . . .  a Hail Mary, to be sure, but still one more hope for the Doyle Estate before the matter is dead and buried.

Law 360 has a juicy little tidbit that the Doyle Estate has asked for a stay on the latest court decision while they petition the Supreme Court to consider their case. Will they get it? Will the Supreme Court consider their petition? That in itself a longshot. The highest court in the land gets petitions by the thousands each year, but considers well under ten percent.

One always hates to see court cases drag on and on, but the idea of getting Sherlock Holmes as a topic for the Supreme Court . . . some dark corner of the Sherlockian mind might actually find that a little exciting. And it raises a lot of questions, like . . . .

Are there liberal and conservative sides to the Free Sherlock case?

Is this just a way for the Estate to keep collecting those licensing fees for just a little bit longer?

Are any of the justices old enough to have known Conan Doyle personally?

Sherlockians have been having at it with the Doyle Estate as far back as 1946, so Les Klinger's modern battle is part of a long tradition. In a 1960 issue of The Baker Street Journal, Edgar Smith wrote an opening editorial called "Defiance to the Gods," in which he suggests the journal might well carry the inscription "Published without the permission of the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" on every issue.

"For why, it may be asked, is permission needed? Mr. Sherlock Holmes is a public figure, and no public figure could conceivably tolerate the indignity of subjecting himself to copyright," Smith wrote, among other great bits. Yay, verily, there were giants in those days!

A Supreme Court case might just put an end to the battle once and for all, but as we've seen in this instance, the Doyle Estate, like Stephen King's Carrie White, is surely bound to thrust a bloody hand out of the grave any time we start thinking the matter is dead and buried. Like any other bureaucratic bit in the modern day, intellectual property isn't likely to become any less messy any time soon.

And our friend Sherlock, in the meantime, seems to be winding up in court a lot more than Professor Moriarty ever did. He might start wishing he went over the falls too, if this keeps up.


  1. Very nice piece. Could I incorporate Sherlock Holmes as a person, determine my own publishing regime and my own religion (religion of Detecting?).

  2. Both sides are fighting for there own interests.
    Doyle estate may be the more moral of the two sides.
    The other side is only in it for the money and not any great cause for man kind or readers.
    Much of what the Doyle estate is doing is trying to protect an image, whether it dies protecting or not.
    Same with Disney, and peanuts, and Calvin and Hobs.

    1. I'd consider removal of what's basically a private tax on writers and other creators as a pretty just cause. We haven't really seen any instances of the Doyle Estate Inc. trying to protect an image, just collecting license fees.

    2. Okay, I'm retracting that last sentence upon getting more information. Proper post to come when I'm less sleepy.

    3. But all those trying to 'Free Sherlock' are not doing if for any other reason than to make money off of Sherlock Holmes. How are they any different?

    4. That would be an excellent question for Les Klinger, as I can't see how he's going to make any more money off of Sherlock Holmes as he's going to spend in legal fees. And I don't think we can lump all those in favor of "Free Sherlock" into the money-grubbing bastards category. As with Edgar Smith in days of old, some just want to make absolutely sure that Sherlock is free for all sorts of creativity, including for those like fan authors or this blogger, who don't make a dime off of their hobby.

  3. Only a fool (and some would call me that) would have brought this suit for personal profit. The license fee that the Estate demanded for the new book, "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes," was a tiny fraction of the legal fees. Maybe the book will be a best-seller, and maybe it will be only a modest success. Either way, it's a wonderful book, and we wanted to share it with the public. While we hope that the Court will require the Estate to pay all of the legal fees, this case was brought--gulp, this is a lawyer about to say something awful--as a matter of principle.

    We believed that the Estate was scoffing at the law, saying that different rules applied to the Estate than other copyright owners. The consequence of their economic position was that they effectively "bullied" many, many creators into paying them a license fee. We thought that was unfair.

    Was the case about money? Certainly it was for the Estate, and you might say that it was to save all those creators money that we brought the case. Really, though, it was about following the law.

    Has the Estate refused to license some bad works? No doubt, but they've licensed some junk too. Why should the Estate be the arbiter of "quality"? The market--readers, viewers--is perfectly capable of doing that without the Estate's help. If you don't like "Sherlock Holmes vs. Dinosaurs," don't watch it, don't buy it.

    1. Thanks for clearing up your position. And I hope the out come is what you hope for.