Saturday, May 23, 2015

The politics of dead authorship.

Well, if anyone thought the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. was just going to call it a day after the "Free Sherlock" loss in court, they now should know differently. The Estate apparently has decided the upcoming movie "Mr. Holmes" featuring Ian McKellen is going to make enough money that it's worth suing. Not that we all didn't know this movie was in production for quite some time, or that the book it was adapted from has been on the shelves for what now . . . nine years?

The backlash on the internet has been freely verbalized -- I seem to remember the phrase "die in a fire" used at some point. (Which always seemed the secular version of "burn in Hell" to me, though it probably just is used more as "Go away, with pain.") The Doyle Estate appears to be viewed a lot like a literary "patent troll" to many, which is probably is always going to be the case when the linking between services rendered and payment becomes as tenuous as it is with non-descendent copyright holders.  Does the Estate care about being popular with the fans? Probably not, as fans don't render lawsuit judgements or stop seeing big screen Holmes movies if they don't have Estate approval.

But it's interesting to look back at the political side of the Conan Doyle copyrights where the fans are concerned, as it has gone a couple of different ways over the years. The Baker Street Irregulars and Conan Doyle's son Adrian had their issues when he controlled the copyright, but when the copyright went away and came back . . . this time in the hands of Adrian's little sister, then a nice elderly sort, members of that same group were much more in her corner. And why wouldn't they be? Nobody wants to steal cookies from a nice old lady who might let you have a look at the recipe if you treat her right.

These days it's a bit messier. There is no one face to the Conan Doyle estate, an Adrian or a Dame Jean, unless it's a certain fellow who couldn't be more on the outs with the Irregulars. And while the U.S. courts freed the basic character of Sherlock Holmes, the character of retired Sherlock Holmes from "The Lion's Mane" seems pretty tightly held in their legal grip with the copyright to that single story. (Though a few details of Holmes's retirement -- "a small farm upon the downs five miles from Eastbourne,"  "rheumatism," and dividing his time "between philosophy and agriculture" -- appear in the out-of-copyright preface to His Last Bow.) And Sherlock Holmes fandom is a lot bigger than the Irregulars and their scions now, energetically zigging and zagging about in ways that make you wonder if they even have time to spare to worry overmuch about court battles that probably shan't affect them.

When it's all over and done, the adventures of the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. is going to make a decent read in The Baker Street Journal -- maybe even a special "Christmas annual" of that same magazine. And one day those adventures will be over, as time gets to everything, eventually.

For now, though, it looks like there's a bit more to be written, about the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., if not about Sherlock Holmes from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We only get to see these sort of issues when that pen has long ago stopped writing stories or signing checks.

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