Copyright of Sherlock Holmes and Other Conan Doyle Works
From time to time parties unrelated to the Conan Doyle family have claimed to own literary or other rights in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, including Sherlock Holmes. Because of the confusion this has sometimes created, we have provided facts on two of the more well-known claimants below.
One Andrea Plunket has for some time claimed to administer the “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate.” Ms. Plunket’s late former husband, the producer Sheldon Reynolds, did at one time own United States copyrights in certain Conan Doyle works. In 1981, however, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last surviving child of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, exercised her right to recapture the copyrights under the United States Copyright Act.
Since that time, Dame Jean and her successors have been the exclusive owners of United States copyrights and related rights in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. Dame Jean’s heirs formed Conan Doyle Estate Ltd to hold and manage these rights.
After Dame Jean’s death in 1997, Ms. Plunket began making her claims. Every federal court to consider Ms. Plunket’s claims has rejected them, and more than one has imposed sanctions against her.
Plunket v. Doyle, 2001
In Plunket v. Doyle, 2001 WL 175252 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), a New York federal court dismissed Ms. Plunket’s complaint and ordered her to pay Dame Jean’s estate’s attorneys’ fees.
Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. USA Cable, 2004
In Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. USA Cable, 2004 WL 1276842 (June 8, 2004 S.D.N.Y.) Ms. Plunket claimed that her entity Pannonia Farms owned the Conan Doyle rights, but the New York federal court held that Pannonia did not “own the copyrights, trademarks and related rights in the works of Sir Doyle.” This decision was upheld on appeal in a published decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. USA Cable, 426 F. 3d 650 (2d Cir. 2005).
The federal trial court went on to conclude that Pannonia’s claims were “objectively unreasonable,” “frivolous,” and “outrageous,” and required Pannonia to pay the defence’s attorneys’ fees. The Court also fined Pannonia’s lawyers $25,000 for bringing baseless litigation.
Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. Re/Max International
When Ms. Plunket tried to assert Pannonia’s claims in another federal court in Washington, D.C., the court held that “Pannonia Farms has had every opportunity to pursue and litigate this very issue in court and has lost every time.”
Pannonia was consequently barred from re-litigating the issue of ownership of the Conan Doyle rights. Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. Re/Max International, 407 F. Supp. 2d 41 (D.D.C. 2005). Again, the court ordered Pannonia to pay the defence’s attorneys’ fees and costs.
The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company Limited
More recently, a company calling itself The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company Limited, with its related company Sherlock Holmes Company Limited (together, SHMC) has claimed to own trademark rights in the name and image of Sherlock Holmes.
CDE has taken steps to extinguish these claims in the United States and to register its own trademark rights with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The law firm that initially defended SHMC’s trademark claims in these ongoing proceedings has now withdrawn.
For more information, see United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board Cancellation Proceeding No. 92052090 and Opposition Proceeding No. 91192738.