TV URBAN LEGEND: Star Trek: The Next Generation used Sherlock Holmes characters in an episode not knowing that the characters weren’t 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 stories before 1923 are now officially public domain in the United States (although Doyle's post-1922 works still have copyright protection). It’s a complicated quagmire of intellectual property rights (just today, there seems to be even more uncertainty), and their complicated nature seemed to be an issue in the late 1980s when Star Trek: The Next Generation pitted the crew of the Enterprise against Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. Did the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation not know Holmes wasn’t yet in the public domain when they wrote the characters into the 1988 second season episode "Elementary, Dear Data"?
As it turns out, it’s a good deal more complicated than that. It appears that rather than the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation believing the characters were already in the public domain (as U.S. representative of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate Jon Lellenberg pointed out a few years back, because Paramount Pictures had just recently licensed the characters in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes, it seems highly unlikely the studio’s lawyers forgot the legal status three years later), they instead believed the use of the characters in the episode were protected as parodies and therefore didn't need to 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 was they weren't actually adapting the characters, but merely parodying them. It's worthwhile to note it seems clear the producers didn't pay a licensing fee, as there is no credit to the Conan Doyle estate in the episode.
The Conan Doyle estate naturally disputed that the characters' use was parody, especially Professor Moriarty, and made it clear any future depiction in that manner would require a licensing fee. That, then, led to a bit of a game of telephone, as people who weren't with the series in the second season began to perpetuate rumors about why they weren't allowed to use Sherlock Holmes characters. For instance, producer Jeri Taylor, who joined in Season 4 and secured 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 didn't seem to be any issue regarding Young Sherlock Holmes (again, Taylor would just be repeating what others had told her, as she wasn't working on the show at the time). It just seems like the Conan 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 spread about why they couldn't use the characters until Taylor actually contacted the Conan 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 may have been that the producers might have contacted the Conan Doyle estate before filming the episode and then came up with the parody defense after hearing what the usage fee would be), it wasn't a matter of Star Trek: The Next Generation not knowing that the Sherlock Holmes characters were not in the public domain.
The legend is...
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