Owners of copyright in characters are often well-advised not to press their claims too far in litigation at the risk of losing their rights altogether. This may be what motivated a quick settlement of litigation over Sherlock Holmes.
In June, 2020, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued Netflix and others over their planned release of Enola Holmes. This was a movie starring Millie Bobbie Brown as Sherlock’s younger sister, a character not found in the original Doyle oeuvre. The lawsuit claimed that the depiction of the iconic detective in the movie constituted copyright infringement and also infringed trademarks controlled by the estate.
This was a daring gambit, as the defendants pointed out in their motion to dismiss. Ten Sherlock Holmes stories at most remained under copyright at the time of the suit. Even earlier, in 2014, the Seventh Circuit had ruled the character had fallen into the public domain based on the number of underlying works whose copyrights had expired.
The complaint sidestepped this issue by asserting that these last ten stories introduced an emotional Sherlock Holmes who is respectful of women, and it was this “new” Holmes that was infringed. The defendants countered this by arguing that emotion and respect are generic traits that are not copyrightable and in any event were both displayed by Sherlock Holmes in public domain works.
Despite quotes in the defendants’ motion from the Seventh Circuit decision referring to the plaintiff’s business practices as “a form of extortion,” it appears that neither side was willing to put the Doyle Estate’s theory to the test. The case settled shortly before Christmas.