Arthur Conan Doyle estate sues over Ian McKellen film Mr Holmes

The author's heirs claim the Miramax blockbuster borrows from stories about the Baker Street sleuth still in copyright in the US

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The Arthur Conan Doyle estate is suing over a forthcoming film starring Ian McKellen as a retired Sherlock Holmes.

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Mr Holmes is based on the 2005 book A Slight Trick of the Mind by US author Mitch Cullin, but Conan Doyle’s heirs say it also draws on the Scottish novelist’s later stories of the great detective, which are still under copyright in the US. Last week the estate filed a suit against movie studio Miramax, publisher Penguin Random House and Cullin, who is also one of the film’s screenwriters.

The first 50 of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain but the last 10, published between 1923 and 1927, remain protected by the US’s 95-year copyright laws. Lawyers acting on behalf of the estate argue that in these the reader learns much more about the Baker Street detective’s retirement, and that “Cullin took these and many other protected elements of setting, plot, and character in A Slight Trick of the Mind.”

The complaint, which was filed in New Mexico, continues: “We admire both the book and the movie, and we have told the defendants that. But much of the setting, plot and especially the character and emotional makeup of Sherlock Holmes as an older man, come straight from copyrighted stories.

“Those stories are among the most original and creative works of modern fiction, and they should not be ripped off just because older Conan Doyle stories are in the public domain.”

Last August, another US author, Leslie Klinger, successfully challenged the estate’s copyright after he was asked to pay a licence fee for writing new stories based on Conan Doyle’s. The US Court of Appeal ruled that the levying of fees was “disreputable” and ordered the estate to pay £18,000 in legal costs.

Mr Holmes is set in 1947 when the famous sleuth has retired to a remote Sussex farmhouse, with only his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son for company. Frustrated by being misrepresented in his old sidekick Watson’s best-selling novels, he distracts himself with an unsolved case. 

The film is due to be released in UK cinemas on June 19th.

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Read our review: Ian McKellen gives a strikingly subtle performance as an aged Sherlock in Mr Holmes

See the first trailer for Mr Holmes 

Mr Holmes