Could CBS' Elementary Pilot Lead To Legal Issues Due To Similarities With BBC's Sherlock?

By Kelly West 2012-01-21 14:35:52 discussion comments
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Could CBS' Elementary Pilot Lead To Legal Issues Due To Similarities With BBC's Sherlock?  image
I know I’m not alone in having groaned audibly at the news that CBS had given the green light to a pilot called Elementary, described as a modern day take on Sherlock Holmes, set in New York City. Those of us who have seen BBC One’s Sherlock, which airs on this side of the pond on PBS Masterpiece (and is available on Netflix) know that the concept is being done and extremely well, I might add.

It needs to be said that I’m not opposed to remakes in general. As a TV fan, I don’t feel the need to “choose sides” when it comes to the original British version of The Office and the U.S. version because, despite the similar concept, the shows are different enough that they are both funny and entertaining in their own ways. David Brent and Michael Scott, for example, are both hilarious and there are some personality similarities, but they are not the same men. Michael Scott is not an American David Brent. He’s Michael Scott. And David Brent is David Brent. It's not about better or worse, for me as a viewer. It's about different and funny, which applies to both characters and series. That said, an Americanized Sherlock Holmes would not be Sherlock Holmes. However, it’s possible (even probable) that the assumption that CBS' pilot intends to make Holmes American, is inaccurate. So we might need to put that argument aside for now.

From the reported description for the Elementary pilot, the “pipe-smoking private eye” is “now living in New York City.” It doesn’t say he’s American. It sounds like the idea of the series is not only to take Sherlock Holmes and put him into modern times, as BBC One’s Sherlock has already done, but also put him in New York, where his accent and British nature will surely be made to clash dramatically and maybe even comedically with New York’s Finest. In that respect, there is something intriguing, albeit gimmicky about the concept. But it still sounds like a remake that’s pretending not to be a remake.

That brings me to an article The Independent posted today, which quotes Sherlock executive producer Sue Vertue as saying that CBS approached them about doing a remake of their series “a while back.” She went on to say...
At the time, they made great assurances about their integrity, so we have to assume that their modernised Sherlock Holmes doesn't resemble ours in any way, as that would be extremely worrying." She added: "We are very proud of our show and like any proud parent, will protect the interest and wellbeing of our offspring."

As well they should be. If CBS went to the series to talk to them about a remake, why does it sound like they're moving forward with something that's not being reported as a straight-up Sherlock remake? The situation sounds a bit tricky from a legal standpoint, considering Sherlock is also borrowing the character from classic literature. From what the Independent reports, it’s the concept of relocating the character to a modern setting, “which may closely impinge on the BBC series, which has made laptops and text messaging an important element of its plots.” In other words, moving the character to the future is Sherlock’s thing and that could present legal issues for CBS.
Margaret Tofalides, a copyright specialist at law firm Manches, said: "The concept of a new Sherlock Holmes is unprotectable. But if the unusual elements of the BBC series – the modern settings, characters, clothes, plots and distinctive visual style – were closely reproduced in the CBS version, that could form the basis of a potential copyright claim."

This is just speculation here, but attempts to avoid stepping on Sherlock’s toes might present enough limitations on this series that CBS could decide to move away from the Sherlock character entirely. Banking on the popularity of the British series, which has trickled it’s way to the U.S. already, could prove to be an expensive endeavor. Then again, would it be a huge surprise of Elementary is scrapped, and some other procedural landed at the network, centering on a quick-minded, quirky British detective working in New York (possible name suggestion: Sherman Houses)? All kidding (kind of) aside, it’s interesting to know that an eye is being kept on CBS (pun only partially intended).

In the meantime, for those of you who are interested in seeing a great detective show, I highly recommend checking out Sherlock on Netflix or when it re-airs on PBS Masterpiece. “The Blind Banker” (Episode 2 of Series 1) airs tomorrow night (Sunday, Jan. 22) at 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS Masterpiece.
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