HISTORY OF THE
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE COPYRIGHTS
1930 to 1976
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a compassionate man who habitually championed the cause of individuals he felt needed help. He created one of the most popular characters in literature. Sadly, after his demise, his legacy has been the object of strife, jealousy, trickery, and heartache to this day.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, survived by his widow Jean, their three children Dennis, Adrian and Lena Jean, and his daughter Mary by his first wife Louise.
In his will, the author had left his literary works in Trust to his wife Jean and her children while conspicuously leaving his first daughter Mary out of the Trust. The trustees included the asset management company, Fidès Union Fiducière in Switzerland (Fidès).
Jean Conan Doyle was literary executor of her husband’s estate until her death in 1940 after which his son Adrian took over until his death in 1970.
By 1970, the surviving heirs to copyrights were his daughter Lady Jean Bromet (Dame Jean), Princess Nina Mdivani, the widow of his son Dennis who had remarried her husband's secretary Anthony Harwood, and Anna Conan Doyle, Adrian's widow.
The three women, who were equal beneficiaries, did not get on well and were constantly in litigation.
After Adrian’s death in 1970, Princess Nina Mdivani approached Jonathan Clowes; a Literary Agent based in London, asking him to conduct a financial audit of the literary estate as she felt that the income was low under Adrian’s management.
Jonathan Clowes discovered that considerable sums of money had bypassed the beneficiaries and had been paid to Adrian and his associates as “consultant fees”. For instance, three films had been licensed including The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, with total budgets of $30 million and, according to the files; the literary estate's royalties were less than $30,000.
Jonathan Clowes’ findings further aggravated the beneficiaries’ relationship and he suggested that they sell the literary estate and share the proceeds. To his surprise, they all agreed. The sale of the literary estate was subsequently advertised in a number of newspapers, including Variety. Booker Brothers offered the highest bid.
However, as soon as this offer was received, the three women went back on the warpath. Dame Jean and Anna wanted to accept the Booker Brothers offer, Nina did not. So the three women went to Court once more. The case dragged on for weeks, at great cost, until Johnathan Clowes, once again, came up with a suggestion. He advised Nina to buy out her two sisters-in-law, offering the Booker Brothers price plus an extra £10,000. She thought this was a good idea but didn't have the money. Based upon the expected revenue of the literary estate, Jonathan Clowes persuaded the Royal Bank of Scotland to finance Princess Mdivani’s purchase of the literary works.
When the Princess, through her lawyer, made the purchase offer in Court, the Judge immediately adjudicated in her favour in order to put an end to the interminable infighting. On the 1st of July 1972, Dame Jean and Anna Conan Doyle sold their share of Arthur Conan Doyle’s copyrights to Nina Mdivani Harwood for £192,260 (the equivalent of £2.3 million in today’s currency). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary works were then vested into an Isle of Man corporation: Baskervilles Investments Ltd. See Exhibit 1: Sale of Copyrights to Baskerville Investment Ltd. The works mentioned in schedule 1 of this assignment are specifically: “All works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as specified in Locke’s Bibliographical Catalogue, which is the universally accepted bibliographical record of all of Arthur Conan Doyle's works.
Jonathan Clowes was asked to manage the copyrights, which he did very well; the first year's income rose to £100,000 and the second year nearly reached £200,000. All of this money was rapidly squandered by the Princess and her husband, who spent their time travelling to expensive resorts and staying in luxurious hotel suites. Soon it would transpire that it wasn’t used to pay back the loan used for the purchase.
1976 to 2000
By 1976, as the interest to The Royal Bank of Scotland had not been paid, Baskervilles Investments Ltd was placed into receivership and the bank appointed William G. Mackey as Receiver. Jonathan Clowes continued to manage the copyrights as they were put up for sale.
At that time, Sheldon Reynolds, a TV Movie Producer-Director in New York, was looking to obtain a license to produce a new Sherlock Holmes series. He had already produced a successful series in the 1950's, with Leslie Howard's son Ronald in the lead. Reynolds approached William Mackey and learned that he would not be able to negotiate a license but that all the copyrights were up for sale. Reynolds took the opportunity and with Lady Etelka Duncan, the mother of his wife Andrea, providing the funds, they proceeded to purchase the copyrights.
Lady Duncan put up $204,000 (close to $1 million in today’s terms) to purchase the copyrights. Andrea's father, André Milos, Lady Duncan’s first husband, was put in charge of the acquisition. André Milos appointed Sheldon Reynolds as his agent to close the deal with the Receiver acting for the Royal Bank of Scotland. The final contract transferring the copyrights of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary works to Sheldon Reynolds was signed on the 25th of July 1976 in London. See Exhibit 2: Sale of Copyrights by Baskervilles to Sheldon Reynolds. As per his mandate, Sheldon Reynolds subsequently assigned the copyrights to André Milos.
As all this was going on, the US Copyright Act of 1976 was signed into Law by President Ford on 19th October 1976 and was to take effect on the 1st of January 1978. It contained two clauses that would revive the litigious proclivities of the Conan Doyle family not to mention the avidity of their agents. The law introduced clause: §201.10 # 304, giving the heirs of an author whose copyrights had been transferred, the possibility to reclaim them under certain circumstances. The 1976 Act also increased the extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from 28 years to 47 years, giving them a total term of 75 years. This meant that Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, the last of which was to go into the public domain in 1985, received a 19 year life extension.
In 1977, Lady Duncan and André Milos appointed Andrea and Sheldon Reynolds as managers of the Arthur Conan Doyle copyrights subsequently known as: The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate. Jonathan Clowes remained the literary agent for the Literary Estate.
Sheldon and Andrea Reynolds went to Poland in 1979 to shoot a Sherlock Holmes series with Geoffrey Whitehead and Malcolm Pickering. (Andrea gave a young actor named Julian Fellowes, who was playing in one of the episodes, and who was eager to try his hand at screenplay writing, the opportunity to write one of the screenplays.) As post-production was ending on the 22 episodes in December of that year, the Polish government imposed martial law in an attempt to squash the Solidarność trade union movement. As a result, the 22 episodes could not be retrieved from the Polish photo lab until late 1985. By that time, the opportunity had passed for the series and it never made it to television.
Jonathan Clowes continued running the Literary Estate through the 80’s and 90’s unperturbed. Sheldon and Andrea Reynolds divorced and Andrea became the sole manager of the Literary Estate by judgment in New York in 1990.
In October 1998 a new Act, known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, was signed into law. Under this Act, works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still protected by copyright in 1998 would not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterward (depending on the date of publication). Effectively, it gave the copyrights yet another life extension; this time 20 years. This means that presently in 2015, there are 10 Sherlock Holmes stories and 19 Conan Doyle stories overall that are still in copyright in the US (see Table 1). All of Conan Doyle’s works entered the public domain in 2000 in the European Union.
2001 to 2015
Between 1976, when Lady Duncan acquired the copyrights from the Royal Bank of Scotland Receiver, and 2000, neither the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate nor its administrators ever received a communication from Dame Jean or her representatives. This can be seen as an acknowledgement on her part that during her lifetime she never contested Etelka Duncan’s family’s ownership of the copyrights. After all, she had sold her third of the copyrights for the approximate equivalent of 1 million pounds 25 years earlier to her sister-in-law.
Dame Jean passed away on 18 November 1997. Clause 8a of her will stipulated that she gave to Charles Foley, her cousin on her mother’s side and Georgina Doyle, the third wife of her cousin John Doyle, the rights throughout the world of her father’s unpublished works as well as the copyrights to her father’s published works outside of the United States “other than those works which are specified in the first schedule to a deed of assignment dated 16th February 1972 and made between Fidès Union Fiducière (1) myself (2) Anna Doyle (3) Nina Harwood (4) and Baskervilles Investment Limited (5)”. This clause specifically excludes the copyrights purchased in 1976 by Lady Etelka Duncan. See Exhibit 3. Clause 9 of her will specifies that she gives as a charitable bequest to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, all rights to the copyrights of her father’s works she may own in the United States. The only rights that did remain in Dame Jean’s possession were to the works other than those she assigned in 1972: the private letters and unpublished works of her father. This is the extent of Dame Jean’s bequest to the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
When the “Sony Bono” Act, passed in 1998, the Arthur Conan Doyle copyrights were again a lucrative prospect in the United States. The UK and European copyrights belonging to the Literary Estate could not be argued against as there was no law equivalent to the 1976 Copyright Act in the US which allowed recapture of copyrights in Europe. Jon Lellenberg, a US literary agent Dame Jean had met in the USA and a scattering of Doyle and Foley relatives including Dame Jean’s executors assembled and purchased the literary rights included in Dame Jean’s bequest from the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
Until the early 2000’s neither the Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate nor its many licensees had been approached by any other entity claiming to own the Arthur Conan Doyle Copyrights. In 2000, conspicuously coinciding with the ending of the European copyrights of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, the “Estate and Executors of Dame Jean Conan Doyle” started approaching authors and producers in the United States claiming to own the Arthur Conan Doyle copyrights and demanding that they purchase movie and book licenses. Five years later, as they could not credibly still claim to be acting on behalf of Dame Jean’s Estate, the gathering formed a company named Conan Doyle Estate Company Ltd. This company stayed dormant until 2010 when it was reinvented and renamed as Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. The word “company” was dropped from the name possibly not to attract too much attention to the fact that they were operating as a company and not as an “Estate”.
In 2001, Andréa ex. Reynolds and remarried Plunket, entered into a lawsuit against the “Estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle” for infringement of copyright see Exhibit 4. The case was dismissed on technicalities and not for lack of merit: a) a complete inventory of the works in question was not provided, b) that Andréa Plunket could not prove that the “Estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle” infringed the rights in New York State specifically, c) the court dismissed Andréa Plunket’s claim because she was the Manager and not the owner of the copyrights and therefore she personally had no claim. In retrospect, her lawyers should have filed the suit in the name of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate. Essentially, a serious error was made and the lawyers representing Andréa Plunket were obliged to pay compensatory damages.
In 2003, Andréa Plunket brought a suit against USA Cable for infringement of copyright through a company named Pannonia Farms Inc. see Exhibit 5. This case was again dismissed because the judge adjudicated that the copyrights had been split between Andréa and Sheldon in 1990 after their divorce and she could not claim that Pannonia Farm Inc. still owned them.
Finally, in 2004, Andréa Plunket sued RE/MAX for copyright infringement again in the name of Pannonia. See Exhibit 6. The judgement determined again that Pannonia Farms Inc. was not the owner of the copyrights for the same reason as the previous case.
None of these judgements confirmed that Dame Jean, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd or anyone related to Arthur Conan Doyle’s family own the copyrights. Indeed, the copyrights belong to the family of Lady Etelka Duncan.
Since the passing of Dame Jean in 1997, Jon Lellenberg and Conan Doyle Estate Ltd have pursued our licensees threatening to sue them unless they also paid them license fees. The most flagrant manifestation of this behaviour occurred with the two Sherlock Holmes films produced by Warner Brothers. On the 20th of December 2006, The Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate entered into a license agreement with Warner Bros. allowing them to use the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Homes stories for the purpose of producing a series of movies and associated merchandizing rights. They subsequently released Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows in 2011. During the shooting of the first film, in the autumn of 2007, Warner Bros. let us know that Jon Lellenberg had approached them claiming to represent the Estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle and threatening to sue them for infringement of copyright. Warner Bros opted to pay them off.
Interestingly Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. have the following statement on their website “In 2007, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd licensed Warner Bros. to make the first important theater-release Sherlock Holmes motion picture in years.” Upon reading the document, however, one cannot help but notice its title: “Covenant not to Sue and Release of All Claims” see Exhibit 7. We have since learned from a number of our licensees that Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. and Jon Lellenberg are considered to operate as “copyright trolls”. Their company, aptly named Conan Doyle Estate Ltd, is a vehicle for them to pose as the “Arthur Conan Doyle Estate”; they enter into a suit and then settle out of court for a handsome fee. The final contract is often a “Covenant Not to Sue” rather than a license agreement. The latest instance of this occurred in May 2015 when they threatened to sue Miramax, the film director, the script writer, Penguin Random House and the distributor of the film “Mr Holmes”.
Andrea Plunket became gravely ill in December 2014. The remaining family of Lady Etelka Duncan took over the management of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate and found a business plagued with claims and counter claims between the Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate and Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., the company formed in 2000 by Jon Lellenberg and the assorted relatives that had assembled after the death of Dame Jean Conan Doyle.
Our family’s first impulse was to try and transform this relationship and see if Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. would be willing to work with us for the benefit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy. Our family has been involved with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work since the early 50’s including our own film production. As the individuals who own Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. are related to Arthur Conan Doyle one would expect that they would want to promote a positive image of his work. We thought everyone would benefit from cooperation. We approached them on that basis and had a first meeting in the UK in March 2015. On our part, we thought the meeting went well and could lead to a positive outcome. We agreed to have the Directors of both companies meet a month later. No progress was made as this meeting.
Shortly after, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. filed a lawsuit against all entities involved with the film “Mr. Holmes” and they filed oppositions to all our trademarks. It seems that further litigation was their answer to our olive branch.
We are resolute in our desire to break the culture of litigation and adversity that has surrounded Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy. Unfortunately, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. feels otherwise. We regret having failed so far to bring harmony to the legacy. But we will continue to try.
Our next endeavour was to attempt clearing up the confusion that has pervaded since Mr. Lellenberg et al. started their trolling activities in 2000. To this end, the Literary Estate contacted a reputed and published US copyright lawyer and asked them to examine and give an opinion on of the “Chain of Title” and the ownership of the copyrights. Every document from Anna Conan Doyle and Dame Jean’s assignment of the copyrights to Princess Mdivani, including the copyright being placed in receivership and the subsequent purchase of the copyrights by Lady Duncan and finally the purported existence of a “Termination Notice” see Exhibit 8 was examined and analysed in light of the changes in copyright law between 1976 and the present day. These are the conclusions of the study
- When Dame Jean Bromet sold her third of her father’s copyrights in 1972 to her sister in law, she forfeited her “reversionary rights”.
- Even if she was entitled to exercise her reversionary rights after having received the equivalent of over £1 million in 1972 for her share of the copyrights, she could only do so for one third of these rights as she only inherited one third of the copyrights from her father. Her brothers’ heirs were still alive and the law states:
“17 U.S. Code § 203 c) - The rights of the author's children and grandchildren are in all cases divided among them and exercised on a per stirpes basis according to the number of such author's children represented […]”
- The ‘Notice of Termination” was never valid as it was sent to a non-existent address, if at all, and no acknowledgement of receipt was ever produced.
- Even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts the “Notice of Termination” as legitimate, it still does not cover the entirety of the copyrights. The supposed notice bears the date November 21 1979 and mentions “All of the literary works of Arthur Conan Doyle as specified in LOCKE’S BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CATALOGUE which were copyrighted prior to November 1, 1925”. This notice does not cover any story written after 1925. That means:
In the best of cases, Dame Jean Conan Doyle would have recaptured only one third of the copyrights on 4 stories written before 1925.
Table 1 below explains the allowed timeline for reclaiming the works and the orange highlighted area identifies the works pertaining to the “Notice of Termination”. In order to recapture all the stories, “Notices” would have had to be served every year until 1987.
Table 1: Copyright Dates of Arthur Conan Doyle Stories and Effective Notice Intervals
On the basis of this analysis and the legal opinions the Literary Estate received, we are confident in maintaining that, in addition to owning the character trademarks in Europe, the Literary Estate owns the remaining US copyrights of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The Literary Estate further affirms unequivocally that the company Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. does not own any rights for the following stories
- The Three Gables
- The Blanched Soldier
- The Lion’s Mane
- The Veiled Lodger
- The Retired Colourman
- Shoscombe old Place
- The Land of Mist
- When the World Screamed
- The Disintegration Machine
- The Maracot Deep
- Spegues Dropper
- The Lord of the Dark Face
- The Death Voyage
- The End of Devil Hawker
- The Parish Magazine