Enola Holmes is a new Netflix film starring Stranger Things' Milly Bobbie Brown. Based on the book series by Nancy Springer, it tells the story of Sherlock Holmes' imagined younger sister, Enola, a teenage detective who brings out a more sensitive side of her famously sociopathic brother.
And that's where the problem lies. The character and adventures of Sherlock Holmes is mostly in the public domain, as of 2010. There are, however, 10 Holmes stories that are still technically owned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And as the estate explained in a lawsuit against Netflix and Penguin Random House:
In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.
Conan Doyle made the surprising artistic decision to have his most famous character—known around the world as a brain without a heart—develop into a character with a heart. Holmes became warmer. He became capable of friendship. He could express emotion. He began to respect women.
So you see, it's fine to use the public domain elements of the Holmes mythos. But, the estate argues, the idea of Holmes having emotions and respecting women — those creative elements were explicitly reserved for the stories still owned by the estate, and thus, Enola Holmes exists in violation of their intellectual property rights. Maybe it would be OK if Holmes were an aloof genius, as he appears in the public domain stories. But any emotional development beyond that is simply unallowed. According to the complaint, it would even be copyright violation if one were to portray Holmes as being concerned for Watson's well-being.
The Verge also caught this delightful detail:
[Holmes] also starts liking dogs [in the later stories], which a judge actually has described as a potentially protected trait.
The Doyle Estate had previously sued Miramax over the 2015 movie Mr. Holmes, which references Holmes's retirement in The Last Bow— an event that is still technically owned by the estate.
Anyway, Enola Holmes is on Netflix now, and I'll probably watch it this weekend, because it looks like a lot of fun, and this lawsuit is dumb.
Arthur Conan Doyle's estate sues Netflix for giving Sherlock Holmes too many feelings [Adi Robertson / The Verge]
Conan Doyle Estate Sues Netflix Over Coming Movie About Sherlock Holmes' Sister [Eriq Gardner / The Hollywood Reporter]