Several months ago, the much-publicized case of Les Klinger versus the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate finally went before a lower court judge. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Estate had, for years, been extorting and attempting to extort money from authors and other producers of Sherlockian media, based on a totally fictitious idea that Holmes was still in copyright, even though many of the stories were already firmly in the public domain and free for use.
(Lest this seem like a small problem, I have personal friends and acquaintances who were harassed, either personally or through their publishers, and there are myriads more, many of whom paid up just to avoid a legal fight.)
The Estate lost in court, but, as usual, did not know when to say uncle and appealed, all the way up to the US Supreme Court, who didn’t even deign to give a reason for refusing to hear such a ridiculous case that had already been firmly decided according to the rule of law. This past week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals put the icing on the cake by ordering the Estate to pay a large chunk of Klinger’s legal fees, while calling Klinger a public servant and the Estate frivolous.
What I want to discuss is the philosophical component of the Doyle Estate’s argument, the idea that all the stories should stay under copyright because Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is incomplete without every single one of them. Now, this argument predictably didn’t hold up in a court of law, and I suspect the Estate’s legal team didn’t think it would. I sense major straw-grasping when the house of cards started tumbling down. Everything worked fine when they were scaring people into paying money they didn’t owe. When Klinger, who knew the law well enough to know he could fight, stood up and challenged them, they were like a schoolyard bully left without his mojo.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s evaluate the actual defense as if there’s someone, somewhere, who truly believes in it, the idea that Sherlock Holmes is somehow incomplete as a character without every last story Doyle wrote about him. (Even if this were true, it’s hardly a copyright argument, since copyright law is not based on character completeness, but bear with me.)
I have a somewhat unusual origin story when it comes to my affinity for Sherlock Holmes. I read the stories as a child and enjoyed them, but it was the pastiches of Laurie R. King that really hooked me. She was the signpost that pointed me back to the originals, but what truly intrigued me was the idea that there could always be more. Holmes’s world, I learned, would never be static is long as lovers of the character chose to write about him in new and interesting ways. It was that huge, expansive world that drew me in.
Since the beginning of the current Sherlockian wave, my story has become less and less unusual. Lots of fans, these days, are coming at Holmes through doorways marked “Sherlock” or “Elementary” or “Watson & Holmes,” a racebent comic that puts the characters in an urban American setting. Some are even coming through a door marked “fanfiction,” their literal first experience being one gifted to them by another enthusiast choosing to share their passion with the world.
This week, after seeing the film Guardians of the Galaxy, I did a little bit of research on protagonist Peter Quill. What I discovered is that, like most comic book heroes, Quill has more than one origin story, and the filmmakers picked the one they liked best. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the main X-Men characters–they’re all this way. At different times and places and cultural moments, a writer chooses to reinvent them in a way that he or she feels is relevant.
The thing is, Peter Quill wasn’t any less complete as a character when his stepfather tried to kill him (original story), and he’s no more of a character now that he was raised by a single mother (current story). Loki is no less Loki when he’s a woman, a kid, or the iteration we now know from the Avengers films.
The point is, modern heroes are our own equivalent to oral tradition, like the stories sung by poets like Homer, that changed and expanded and contracted based on ancient contexts. In an ironic way, the ever-changing nature and impermanence of the Internet facilitates similar changes and expansions. The current craze has swept Sherlock Holmes into this kind of existence.
Fanfiction writers, show producers, and comic illustrators take Sherlock Holmes as the basis for their myths, and they expand him, change him, and sometimes even contract him. I do this in my books, less aggressively than some, but my stories would have nowhere to go if I refused to expand the character or his world. Laurie R. King showed me that this was possible. Her Holmes is (intentionally and self-awarely) just off the original, like a dialect derived from a language. But he’s a complete character in his own right. As is my interpretation. And as is the Holmes in the fan fiction some high school student somewhere is writing in her bedroom as I type this. When you love a character, change and expansion are not disrespect. They’re homage. But they also don’t add or take away from the character as he originally appeared, either.
Some might throw up their hands and wail at the idea that Holmes is in any sense like a comic book hero, but it’s an honor for him to be lifted into the pantheon of characters so passionately loved that fans cannot resist continuing to write new things about them, new stories that reflect new places and times. But no new iteration takes anything away from the old ones.
Perhaps the biggest reason the Estate’s philosophy fails to resonate with me is a personal one. You see, I may not be a guardian of any galaxies or the wielder of the Tesseract, but I’m a character in the story called life, and my time hasn’t ended yet. I’m not the same person I was yesterday, and I’m not the same person I’ll be tomorrow. And yet, I’m a 100% complete person today, just like Sherlock Holmes is in A Study in Scarlet, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and every story in between.
How to get my newest book:
(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.
How to get the previous two books in the series:
(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.
(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.