The curious case of Sherlock Holmes' evolving emotions

The estate of Arthur Conan Doyle has filed a lawsuit against the creators of Enola Holmes for showing off the fictional detective’s softer side

Sherlock Holmes is having serious emotional problems. To be more precise, the problem is that he has too many emotions. Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has filed a lawsuit arguing that Enola Holmes, a new Netflix movie about Sherlock’s kid sister, portrays a warmer, more human side of the fictional detective. This, the Doyle estate argues, is an infringement of copyright. While the lawsuit was filed in June, it has been getting a lot more attention in the past couple of weeks following the film’s release.

If you are not sure why a touchy-feely Holmes is so egregious, don’t worry: the reasoning behind the case is far from elementary. Doyle, his estate argues, was greatly affected by losing his brother and his eldest son in the first world war. He channelled his emotion into Holmes, who, in the stories written between 1923 and 1927, started to get all sensitive and “began to respect women”. This is significant because the post-1922 stories are still under copyright in the US. (In the UK, all the Holmes stories are in the public domain.) Ergo Netflix, and a bunch of other entities connected to the show, could owe the Doyle estate a lot of money.

Whether Holmes really did become more emotional in the postwar stories is an interesting subject for an undergraduate literature essay. But it is a ridiculous premise for a copyright claim. Indeed, the Doyle estate has already tried (and failed) to argue that Holmes’s feelings are legally actionable. In 2013, it asserted that the characters of Holmes and Watson should remain protected until the copyright of the final stories expired because the pair grew more complex as the body of work progressed. This was thrown out by judges, who said it was like arguing that copyrights on the original Star Wars episodes IV, V and VI were extended because of the release of episodes I, II and III.

You have to hand it to the Doyle estate (which consists of eight highly litigious people related to the writer by marriage or blood): they have put a lot of effort and ingenuity into trying to squeeze as much money out of their dead relative’s work as they possibly can. Perhaps it’s time they examined their own character.


Arwa Mahdawi

The GuardianTramp

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