Did Star Trek: The Next Generation Use Sherlock Holmes Characters in an Episode Not Knowing That the Characters Were Not Yet in the Public Domain?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Star Trek: The Next Generation used Sherlock Holmes characters in an episode not knowing that the characters were not yet in the public domain.

Late last month, there was a notable court ruling determining that Sherlock Holmes and the other characters introduced in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories before 1923 were now officially public domain (although Doyle’s post-1923 stories still have copyright protection). It is a complicated quagmire of intellectual property rights (just today, there seems to be more confusion developing regarding the rights) and the complicated nature of the rights seemed to be an issue way back in the late 1980s when Star Trek: The Next Generation pitted the crew of the Enterprise against Sherlock Holmes’ main nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

Did the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation seriously not know that Sherlock Holmes was not yet in the public domain when they wrote the characters into the 1988 second season episode “Elementary, Dear Data”?

As it turns out, it appears to be a good deal more complicated than that. It appears that rather than Star Trek: The Next Generation believing that the characters were already in the public domain (as US representative of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate Jon Lellenberg pointed out a few years back, since Paramount had just recently licensed the characters in the film Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985, it seems highly unlikely that Paramount’s lawyers forgot that the characters were not in the public domain three years later), they instead believed that the use of the characters in the episode were protected as parodies of the characters and therefore did not need to actually be licensed from the Doyle estate. After all, in the episode, Data and Geordi dress up as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for a holodeck adventure and run afoul of the holodeck version of Professor Moriarty, who has gained sentience. So the idea would be that they were not actually adapting the characters, but just doing a parody of them. It is worthwhile to note that it seems clear that they did not pay a licensing fee, as there is no credit to the Doyle estate in the episode.

The Doyle estate naturally disputed that the characters’ use was a parodic use, especially Professor Moriarty, and they made it clear that any future usage in this manner would require a usage fee. This, then, led to a bit of a game of telephone, as people who weren’t with the show in the second season began to perpetuate rumors about why they were not allowed to use Sherlock Holmes characters. For instance, producer Jeri Taylor, who joined in Season 4, ultimately was the one who got the rights to use the characters in Season 6′s “Ship in a Bottle,” explained the situation to Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages) as

“Apparently the Arthur Conan Doyle estate was irritated with Paramount because of the movie Young Sherlock Holmes and they said no, more, ever. Well, as in many walks of life it was never say never again; to my amazement they were willing to give us the characters for a very reasonable licensing fee.”

There did not seem to be any issue over Young Sherlock Holmes (again, Taylor would just be repeating what others had told her, since she wasn’t working on the show at the time). It just seems like the Doyle estate called them on the lack of licensing fee and the producers debated whether they wanted to pay said fee (not for nothing, the episode was very expensive to produce and the production was reduced from eight to seven days of filming to save on costs) and then, of course, rumors swept in over why they couldn’t use the characters until Taylor actually contacted the Doyle estate (there IS a credit in “Ship in a Bottle,” of course).

So while it is true that there was SOME dispute over the episode (one issue might have been that the producers might have contacted the Doyle estate before filming the episode and then came up with the parody defense after hearing what the usage fee would be), it was not a matter of Star Trek: The Next Generation not knowing that the Sherlock Holmes characters were not in the public domain.

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

2 Responses to “Did Star Trek: The Next Generation Use Sherlock Holmes Characters in an Episode Not Knowing That the Characters Were Not Yet in the Public Domain?”

  1. ParanoidObsessive on February 5th, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Odd – I’ve always been under the impression that Sherlock Holmes and related characters have been public domain for years now.

    I think what makes it more complicated is the fact that different copyright restrictions apply in different localities – UK copyright is different from US copyright, for instance (and I would assume that UK copyright would supersede US copyright in any case involving characters written by an English writer first published in England).

    By a strict interpretation of UK copyright (from what I’ve manged to dredge up on the subject), it almost seems as if the everything Doyle wrote should have officially been public domain as of 1980.

    The problem there is that later revisions to copyright law (in 1995) apparently altered the period of protection – AND did so retroactively even on properties which HAD expired in the meantime (which would have renewed said copyright on Doyle for an extra 20 years, expiring in 2000).

    All that being said, it means that the ST:TNG references SHOULD have been public domain in 1988, when they were filmed, but would have retroactively been in violation 7 years later, when the revised law was passed. At least by UK standards.

  2. Great post, thank for the interesting read.

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