As explained in this Variety article from last year, the fight to determine whether or not Sherlock Holmes should be in the public domain has been (unsurprisingly) pretty heated. On one side, you have the people who control the estate of Holmes-creator Arthur Conan Doyle. They want to control the character so they can make a ton of money off of the countless Holmes TV shows and movies. On the other side, you have generations of writers inspired by Holmes who want their chance to tell a story within his world—writers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They don’t want anyone to control the character so they can make a ton of money off of their own Holmes projects.
Unfortunately for Doyle’s estate, though, the copyright has already expired on the vast majority of his Holmes stories, meaning it doesn’t have much ground to stand on when it comes to trying to control the Sherlock Holmes brand. However, that hasn’t stopped the estate from pretending that it has ground to stand on, with Sherlock, Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies all licensing the character from Doyle’s estate even though they don’t legally have to.
The mildly interesting wrinkle to all of this, though, is that not all of Doyle’s Holmes stories are in the public domain. Specifically, a handful of adventures published between 1923 and 1927 that focus on Holmes as an old man are still controlled by the estate, so if you choose to lift something from them, you actually do need its permission. This is where Mr. Holmes—an upcoming Bill Condon film that stars Ian McKellen as an aging Holmes—comes in. As laid out in this other Variety article, the estate read some reviews and watched the trailers for Mr. Holmes and it realized that—much to its surprise—it can actually make money off of this one.
Now Doyle’s estate is suing Miramax, production company Roadside Attractions, and Condon, arguing that Mr. Holmes is infringing on the handful of copyrights that it still holds. Assuming a judge recognizes the same similarities between the film and the stories as the estate, this could actually end up being a pretty straightforward case.
Mr. Holmes will be in theaters on July 17—assuming that this doesn’t get ugly enough to hold it back.