May 28, 2015

The copyright fight over Sherlock Holmes … again

Filed under: Books, Britain, Law — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick explains why the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still trying to fight the public domain availability of anything Sherlock Holmes, even though they’ve lost at each stage of the legal proceedings:

And thus, Sherlock Holmes is considered to be mostly in the public domain. One might argue that a US federal court outside of the 7th Circuit might find otherwise, but it appears that the Estate has given up the fight and now will readily admit that the earlier works are in the public domain. That does not mean, however, that it is done suing. Not at all. The Estate has now sued over a book and movie that purport to tell the story of Holmes’ retirement. The author, Mitch Cullin, wrote the book A Slight Trick of the Mind about a decade ago, and that’s now been adapted into a film called Mr. Holmes, being released by Miramax.

First, the Conan Doyle Estate at least seems willing to admit that the earlier works are now fully in the public domain:

    The first fifty of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels are in the public domain. But the last ten of his original Sherlock Holmes stories, published between 1923 and 1927 (the Ten Stories), remain protected by copyright in the United States. These copyrighted ten stories develop the details of Holmes’s fictional retirement and change and develop the character of Holmes himself.

And that’s where the trouble comes in. The Conan Doyle Estate makes some reasonable claims that Cullin used a few details from the stories that are still under copyright in developing the ideas for his book and the subsequent movie (where he worked on the screenplay). As the complaint notes, the public domain works mention Sherlock Holmes’ retirement just twice, without that much detail. The works still under copyright delve into it much more. The complaint also notes some pretty clear similarities in certain scenes. For example, it points to this passage from the (still under copyright) Holmes story “Blanched Soldier”:

    It is my habit to sit with my back to the window and to place my visitors in the opposite chair, where the light falls full upon them. Mr. James M. Dodd seemed somewhat at a loss how to begin the interview. I did not attempt to help him, for his silence gave me more time for observation. I have found it wise to impress clients with a sense of power, and so I gave him some of my conclusions.

    “From South Africa, sir, I perceive.”

    “Yes, sir,” he answered, with some surprise.

And contrasts it with the following from Cullin’s work:

    As was my usual custom, I sat with my back to the window and invited my visitor into the opposite armchair, where — from his vantage point — I became obscured by the brightness of the outside light, and he — from mine — was illuminated with perfect clarity. Initially, Mr. Keller appeared uncomfortable in my presence, and he seemed at a loss for words. I made no effort to ease his discomfort, but used his awkward silence instead as an opportunity to observe him more closely. I believe that it is always to my advantage to give clients a sense of their own vulnerability, and so, having reached my conclusions regarding his visit, I was quick to instill such a feeling in him.

    “There is a great deal of concern, I see, about your wife.”

    “That is correct, sir,” he replied, visibly taken aback.

Certainly a similar setup, but is it infringing? That’s where things get pretty tricky, and why I still have trouble with the idea of using copyright to cover “a character.” After all, copyright is supposed to only protect the specific expression, rather than the idea. That’s why it’s never made sense to see courts accept the idea that someone writing a different story using the same characters should be seen as infringing. The courts here seem to handle different cases differently, allowing something like The Wind Done Gone (a retelling of Gone With The Wind from another character’s perspective) but not allowing Coming Through the Rye, an unauthorized sequel to Catcher in the Rye. For reasons that are not entirely clear, judges seemed to feel that The Wind Done Gone was more acceptable as a commentary on the original, rather than just a new work building off of the original.

February 23, 2015

The mystery of the lost Sherlock Holmes short story

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Tim Chester alerted me to the discovery of a short story contributed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to a fundraising effort to save a bridge in Selkirk:

A Scottish historian has discovered a lost Sherlock Holmes story in his attic, over 80 years after it was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Walter Elliot found the 1,300-word tale featuring the famous detective — played on TV by Benedict Cumberbatch — in a collection of stories he was given over 50 years ago. It’s called Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, by deduction, the Brig Bazaar.

Elliot was given the 48-page pamphlet half a century ago by a friend, but forgot all about it until he was rooting around in his attic recently. It’s believed to be the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over 80 years ago.

The story is now available to read online.

A book, containing a short Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on display at the Selkirk Pop Up Community Museum after Walter Elliot, 80, found it in his attic and donated it.

A book, containing a short Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on display at the Selkirk Pop Up Community Museum after Walter Elliot, 80, found it in his attic and donated it.

You can read the story at the Telegraph.

May 19, 2014

Exercising your ears – accents in Sherlock

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

I’m a fan of the ongoing BBC series Sherlock starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch (or “Cummerband Bandersnatch” as his name seems to cause the yips in some people). At Firestorm over London there’s a brief discussion of British accents in general, and the specific variants in use among the actors in the show:

An introduction to the rich variety of British accents and an analysis of accents used in Sherlock. I explore the distinctive regional accents and of course the ubiquitous BBC pronunciation, what the accents can tell us about the characters. A short, not too serious guide by someone who has no linguistics expertise.

Islands of Contrast

An accent for the purposes of this essay is a manner of pronunciation that is particular to an individual, community or location.

The British Isles are geographically small but the accents that have evolved are incredibly diverse. I grew up in the North West of England where, even though the motorway links are brilliant, travelling a mere 60 miles or so will completely change the accents that you hear.

The most ubiquitous accent in the UK is BBC pronunciation. It used to be called “Received Pronunciation” but that term has fallen out of favour. If you’ve ever watched BBC News or listened to the English programs on the BBC World Service that is the accent I am referring to. This is not a regional accent — although it is more common in South of England. When people in the UK say that someone doesn’t have an accent, they really mean the person uses BBC pronunciation.

I haven’t been back to visit England in several years, but on my last few visits the number of times I heard RP seemed fewer than any regional accent everywhere we went. Even the BBC News presenters all seemed to have regional accents rather than speaking in RP. I’m originally from Middlesbrough, which boasts one of the least attractive regional accents you’ll ever hear (the closest you’d find would be a Newcastle “Geordie” accent … but less comprehensible). It’s been so long since I lived there that I now have trouble understanding it myself…

Many fans have identified Mycroft Holmes’ accent as “posh”. There is not an official “posh accent” — and even if there was Mycroft Holmes does not have it.

Posh is a very subjective description. Where I grew up anyone who didn’t have a regional accent was “posh”. After coming to University in the South, I have realised that BBC pronunciation is not considered “posh” but “standard”. Posh was defined as the rather over-exaggerated accent people often use to pantomime the rich. There are a small minority of people who have that stereotypical accent but “posh” on its own is not a very good way of describing anyone’s accent.

If we are going to talk about poshness — I believe it’s better to view it as a “gradation of poshness” which is superimposed on BBC pronunciation, rather than a distinct “posh accent”.

BBC pronunciation and the “gradation of poshness” are not good reflectors of social status in today’s society.

Traditionally BBC pronunciation was considered the preserve of the middle classes. It was something that set you apart from the common masses with their regional accents. I wouldn’t say that class has no role in today’s society, but BBC pronunciation itself has become less of a hallmark of class. Many people who would identify themselves as working class do not have a regional accent, whilst the middle-classes are more accepting of regional accents. The BBC has worked hard to introduce presenters with regional accents onto prime time television. Therefore it is hard to judge the social status of a person purely based on how “posh” they sound. Their accent will not always match your expectations of their material circumstances.


John Watson

John had me rather puzzled but my conclusion is that his accent qualifies as BBC pronunciation but unlike Mycroft or Sherlock, he has not superimposed any of those “upper class” vowels on his pronunciation. For example his “a” vowel sounds are much shorter as evidenced in words such as “pass”. John is a much better presentation of what a great number of people in the UK actually sound like.

Here is an amusing map of how the “a” vowel varies in pronunciation between different geographic areas:

British pronunciation of the letter a

John fits in very much with the blue group. His rendition of the “a” vowel is still correct and technically BBC pronunciation. However it is considered less “posh” than pronouncing the “a” vowel as “ah”.

His rhythm of speech and accentuations within words may contribute to the overall impression that his accent is different to Sherlock’s. This is true because Sherlock doesn’t have exact BBC pronunciation and neither does John. Though they deviate in different ways I would say their accents overall qualify as BBC pronunciation. It is certainly hard to pinpoint a location for the original of John’s accent.

H/T to ESR, who asked about the Sherlock accents on Google+ (the link to Firestorm was provided in the comments to his post).

March 25, 2014

The origins of Hound of the Baskervilles

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Media — Tags: — Nicholas @ 08:51

In History Today, Richard Cavendish tells the story behind the best-known of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories:

Much ink and accusations of plagiarism have been spilled over the story’s origins. Conan Doyle’s initial inspiration came from a young journalist friend named Bertram Fletcher Robinson, nicknamed ‘Bobbles’, with whom he spent four days on a seaside golfing holiday at Cromer in Norfolk in the spring of 1901. While they were there, Robinson told Doyle the legend of a ghostly hound on Dartmoor and the two men decided to write what the latter called ‘a real creeper’ together. Robinson lived at Ipplepen, near Newton Abbot in South Devon, and the two friends went there to investigate Dartmoor. Robinson wrote later that Doyle ‘listened eagerly to my stories of the ghost hounds, of the headless riders and of the devils that lurk in the hollows – legends upon which I had been reared, for my home lay on the borders of the moor.’ They stayed at Robinson’s home and at Rowe’s Duchy Hotel at Princetown near the prison, whose governor, deputy governor, chaplain and doctor solemnly came, as Robinson noted, ‘to pay a call on Mr Sherlock Holmes’, to Doyle’s irritation. He and Robinson explored the moor together and appropriated the surname of Robinson’s coachman, Harry Baskerville.

Doyle decided early on to make the tale a Sherlock Holmes mystery, presumed to be an episode in Holmes’ earlier career, before his fatal grapple with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Writing to the editor of the Strand Magazine, Herbert Greenhough Smith, to tell him about the new story, he stipulated that Fletcher Robinson’s name must appear as joint author. ‘I can answer for the yarn being all my own in my own style without dilution, since your readers like that. But he gave me the central idea and the local colour, and so I feel his name must appear.’ This was finally watered down to a note added to the first part, recording Doyle’s indebtedness to Fletcher Robinson, to whom ‘this story owes its inception’ and ‘who has helped me both in the general plot and in the local details.’ The British and American editions in book form also acknowledged Robinson’s help.

February 9, 2014

Video QotD: Sherlock Holmes on Canada

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Quotations, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 10:20

H/T to James Lileks for the clip.

January 14, 2014

Colby Cosh is just handing out million-dollar ideas for TV

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:36

No, really:

January 2, 2014

John and Sherlock

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:26

The first episode of Sherlock season three was aired in the UK yesterday. On this side of the pond, we won’t get to see it until later in the year, so we have to rely on media reaction to the show, and Tim Stanley wasn’t over-pleased with the producers’ efforts, calling it a “roller-coaster ride” that “leaves you confused and nauseous”:

Holmes has always been a wonder, but here he is wondrous to the point of smug and irritating. How can Watson love him? Presumably because they are such good friends and one of Sherlock‘s strong points is the genuine chemistry between Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. But even this comes with an irritating postmodern twist. Everyone presumes they’re gay. Because of course if two men spend more than five minutes in each other’s company they’re obviously candidates for some Brokeback-style hot cowboy action in a tent.

One of the saddest things about our culture is the death of brotherhood. Watch any of the pre-Millennium Sherlocks and you’ll be in no doubt that these men would take a bullet for one another. In the excellent Murder By Decree, Christopher Plummer and James Mason’s heroes are so tender that they share a blanket on a carriage ride — Sherlock gently tucking Watson in. When Vasily Livanov’s Holmes “dies” in the Russian version of The Final Problem, Vitaly Solomin’s Watson collapses against a tree and weeps uncontrollably. But no one ever questions their sexual preference. There’s no need to. They’re just friends.

By contrast, contemporary British culture has become so pornified and sex-obsessed that the running gag in Sherlock is that everyone thinks Cumberbatch and Freeman are in a civil partnership. Don’t get me wrong — I’m sure there’s an enjoyable version of Holmes yet to be written in which they’re at it like knives. But the constant snickering that goes on in Sherlock just adds to a sense of the show’s lack of maturity. It’s knowing, clever-clever, hip, ironic, tech-obsessed, geeky, hipster and just about everything else that gets in the way of a sophisticated yarn well told. For that, you have to go back to the Jeremy Brett Sherlock, which was distinctly lacking in action but high on good prose. Most episodes were an hour of Jeremy sitting in the gloom in Baker Street complaining that he’s got nothing to do. Compulsive viewing.

December 17, 2013

Sherlock Series 3 Launch Trailer – BBC One

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:26

September 17, 2013

Revisiting “Sherlock Holmes and the case of public domain”

Filed under: Books, Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:01

If you’ve been following along at home, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been conducting a remarkable rearguard campaign to ensure that the last ten Sherlock Holmes short stories do not enter public domain. Earlier this year, we looked at The case of the over-extended copyright and Sherlock Holmes and the case of public domain. The estate is now involved in a lawsuit where TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick says they are pushing a theory of copyright that might work to infinitely extend copyright protection to certain works:

For a few years now we’ve discussed a few times some of the confusion as to why Sherlock Holmes isn’t considered in the public domain in the US, even though he probably should be. As we’ve explained, all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books except for one are in the public domain. The Conan Doyle estate claims that having that single book under copyright means that the entire character is covered by copyright. Earlier this year, we pointed out that a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar (such things exist!) named Leslie Klinger had decided to file for declaratory judgment that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, following a legal nastygram from the Estate, arguing that it needed a license fee for Klinger’s latest book.

The Conan Doyle Estate has now filed its response to the motion for summary judgment, and it’s an astounding study of ignorance concerning copyright law and the public domain. While it admits that there are only ten short stories (from that one remaining book) that are under copyright, it still argues that those ten stories lock up pretty much everything else. First, it argues that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson continued to grow as personalities in those last ten stories, and that the stories were non-linear (i.e., some took place earlier in their fictional lives), it more or less encompasses everything, even those public domain works.

    The facts are that Sir Arthur continued creating the characters in the copyrighted Ten Stories, adding significant aspects of each character’s background, creating new history about the dynamics of their own relationship, changing Holmes’s outlook on the world, and giving him new skills. And Sir Arthur did this in a non-linear way. Each of the Ten Stories is set at various points earlier in the two men’s lives—and even late stories create new aspects of the men’s youthful character. In other words, at any given point in their fictional lives, the characters depend on copyrighted character development.

Of course, if that’s true, it basically presents a way to make copyright on characters perpetual. You just need to have someone continue to release new works that have some minor change to the character, and they get to pretend you have a new starting point for the public domain ticker. That can’t be what the law intended.

Update, 3 January 2014: In a slight surprise, the court has ruled that the character is no longer protected under US copyright laws.

Update the second, 17 June 2014: The appeal has been heard, and the original decision has been confirmed and the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are in the public domain in the United States.

It is legal to publish stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson without the permission of their creator’s estate, because those characters are in the public domain. That’s a straightforward reading of current copyright law, and the Seventh Circuit confirmed it yesterday, upholding a lower court’s ruling that Holmes fan Leslie Klinger has the right to edit an anthology of Sherlock stories by contemporary writers.

It’s a welcome decision. The argument offered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate rested on the fact that 10 Sherlock stories were published after 1923 and therefore have not yet entered the public domain. Because those stories introduced new elements to Holmes’ and Watson’s fictional lives, the estate’s attorneys claimed that the characters were not fully created until after 1923 and therefore aren’t in the public domain after all. At a time when copyright terms are constantly being extended into the future, the estate was effectively attempting to enact a stealth extension into the past.

August 3, 2013

Sherlock Series 3 Teaser Trailer

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:09

More about this programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018ttws Sherlock returns but will things ever be the same again?

February 24, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the case of public domain

Filed under: Books, Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:36

Following up on an earlier post (“The case of the over-extended copyright“), The Economist explains why there is still legal wrangling going on over the copyright claims on Sherlock Holmes:

The situation is muddled by differing copyright regimes in America and elsewhere. No one disputes that the copyright has expired on Conan Doyle’s work anywhere where protection ceases 70 years after an author’s death (he died in 1930). Yet when America reformed its copyright rules in 1978 to introduce a “life plus” model in harmony with the rest of the world for works created starting in 1978, it retained its older term-limited system for property created between 1923 and 1977. Works produced within that range have had their expiration extended to a fixed 95-year term from first publication; anything produced earlier is in the public domain. This umbrella of protection covers ten Holmes stories published in America for the first time as part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes in 1927. These stories are still under copyright until January 1st 2023.

[. . .]

The estate also asserts some trademark rights on the Holmes characters, but Mr Klinger confirms to your correspondent that this was not part of the license claim. Jennifer Jenkins, the director of Duke University’s Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, says trademark protection would be inapplicable, in any case. “Trademark law doesn’t fit what they’re claiming to own or what they’re trying to stop,” she says. Ms Jenkins also dismisses any copyright claim the estate might have to any pre-1923 elements of Holmes’s biography. “The problem is that Sherlock Holmes and Watson are quite clearly in the public domain.” The estate did not respond to a request for details about its intellectual property.

[. . .]

An expert in the duration of copyright terms in America, Peter Hirtle of Cornell University finds no basis for the Conan Doyle estate to claim general ownership over aspects of Holmes from stories that are in the public domain. “Let’s imagine that the fact that Holmes plays the violin was included for the first time in one of the copyrighted stories,” he says via e-mail, “then it can’t be included in any new story that draws on the public domain versions.” But if the “Company” stories rely entirely on public-domain elements, then the estate has no ground to stand on, he adds.

February 17, 2013

The case of the over-extended copyright

Filed under: Books, Law, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:28

In this story, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson encounter a true mystery: why the heirs of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are still able to pressure publishers for licensing fees long after the original stories should have been fully in the public domain:

It isn’t often one gets a ringside seat at a legal-literary battle royal, but it would seem that we’re about to bear witness to some activity in that particular area.

Of course, you’ll recall that recent legal battles in England have revolved around Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s home for about a decade that included when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. [. . .] But this is wholly different.

The noted Sherlockian scholar, Baker Street Irregular and prominent attorney Leslie Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library and The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, to name a few, has filed a civil lawsuit against the Conan Doyle Estate to determine that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are in fact in the public domain.

Currently, the so-called estate undertakes high-handed legal action to levy royalties and other payments from authors who use the characters in their own works. This is despite the fact that there are only 10 stories in the entire Canon that are still under copyright protection (in the United States). Klinger, for one, will not stand for this bullying, and has formally filed suit and issued a press release.

H/T to Tim Harford (and Cory Doctorow) for the link.

May 25, 2012

QotD: Sherlock and the fickle tide of fashion

Filed under: Books, Britain, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

[Y]ou can see why men wanted to get the look. Perhaps they noted the effect Cumberbatch, by no means your standard telly hunk, had on lady viewers […] and decided it must have something to do with the clobber. So it is that Britain’s latest men’s style icon is a fictional asexual sociopath first seen onscreen hitting a corpse with a horse whip. Surely not even the great detective himself could have deduced that was going to happen.
Alexis Petridis, “No chic, Sherlock”, The Guardian, 2010-09-04

August 13, 2009

If they won’t voluntarily read lit’rit’cher . . .

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:47

. . . repackage it as sleaze:

The Valley of Fear

“Years ago, a PI out of Chicago brought justice to a dirty town. Now he’s going to pay,” trumpets the cover copy for US publisher Hard Case Crime’s new take on the classic novel, which it will release in December. “The man needs the help of a great detective … but could even Sherlock Holmes save him now?” The cover shows a scantily clad, backlit blond, reacting in terror to a muscled man showing off a brand on his forearm. Arthur Conan Doyle becomes AC Doyle, “bestselling author of The Lost World”, while the reader is further enticed by the tagline that “They All Answered to… The BODYMASTER!”

Publisher Charles Ardai said he had been looking for a classic novel to “playfully repackage” in Hard Case Crime’s pulp style since he launched the press five years ago, keen to follow in the footsteps of the 1940s and 1950s, which saw a cleavage-revealing cover dreamed up for 1984 (“Forbidden love … Fear … Betrayal”), and a “bosomy lipsticked redhead” on the cover of Frankenstein. “This is the tradition we wanted to revive with our edition of The Valley of Fear — presenting something ‘good for you’ in ‘bad for you’ garb,” he said.

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