Saturday, 28 September 2013

Copyright; A Case For Sherlock Holmes

I somehow missed this but apparently a lady by the name of Andrea Plunket wants to stop any more episodes of the BBC's Sherlock from being made. She plans to take the BBC to court with the claim that she owns the copyright to the last ten Sherlock Holmes stories and that the BBC has not asked for her permission to use them. This interested me because I thought that (a) the stores are in the public domain, (b) if anyone does own anything to do with them it would surely be Conan Doyle Estate Ltd and (b) who the hell is this Plunket?

Turns out she is the wife of Sheldon Reynolds, who in the 1950's owned the rights to a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories and produced the Ron Howard version. Upon their divorce in 1990 she claimed she had these copyrights in her name, despite a court rejecting her claims. The Conan Doyle Estate sued her and won, but she's not paid any of the monies owed as yet, claiming she doesn't have the funds (despite the fact she used to be a millionaire...) As if this wasn't strange enough I also discovered that she threatened to withdraw her permission for the second Guy Ritchie Sherlock film, Game of Shadows, because of Robert Downey Jr. talking on Letterman about the "bromance" between Sherlock and Watson. Apparently Ms. Plunket isn't too keen on the homosexual sub-plot idea; "I hope this is just an example of Mr. Downey’s black sense of humour. It would be drastic, but I would withdraw permission for more films to be made if they feel that is a theme they wish to bring out in the future... I am not hostile to homosexuals, but I am to anyone who is not true to the spirit of the books."

Yikes. So delusional and an itty-bit bigoted may-haps? And that classic of "not true to the spirit of the books" thing is a load of hokum - Sherlock has been adapted in so many ways since Doyle's death and as long as it makes sense within that adaptation anything goes. Even Doyle knew full well what he was doing with the relationship between Watson and Holmes. The "bachelor" genre was a real thing in his time and it would be naive to think he wasn't aware of it. When reading a Sherlock Holmes story you can read it as a love story without changing a word of the original text. That is not a coincidence. I think Doyle left it open to interpretation on purpose and it would be completely in line with his character to be a supporter of early gay rights at the time, though obviously there would have been no way for him to say this outright.

Finally, whether Plunket likes it or not, the copyright for the Holmes stories has run out, they're in the public domain and no amount of suing people is going to change that. Never mind that her own claim was always a bit sketchy at best anyway. Even the Conan Doyle Estate don't sue as much as her, and they have a much stronger argument. It's a mystery what she expects to get out of it, but we'll soon see if she goes through with her threats.

This situation sums up one of the things I don't understand about copyright; how can anyone claim for something after the person who created the thing is dead? Surely, logically, a copyright should only last as long as the creator is alive and then, at best, be passed onto the family for a set amount of time before the pieces of work go into the public domain? This in fact seems to be the practise, but you still have families and descendants and other parties claiming they own a piece of some long dead person's work... Then again, I shouldn't be surprised what people will do for money. At any rate, it would all make a very interesting story, and maybe a puzzle suitable for the great detective himself.

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