When CBS decided to order the modern-day Sherlock Holmes pilot Elementary, fans of the BBC and PBS series Sherlock were appropriately perplexed. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, it’s currently being done. By the best. And it’s very good.
Fortunately, Sherlock executive producer Sue Vertue (and wife of co-creator Steven Moffat) isn’t staying quiet about CBS’s programming decision. Shedding some light on why CBS decided to move forward with their modern-day Sherlock Holmes pilot, as well reassuring fans that they’ll make sure Sherlock is in no way negatively impacted by Elementary, Vertue lays out the uphill battle that CBS will have if they decide to take their modern telling of Sherlock Holmes to series.
Following the announcement of CBS’s Elementary, Vertue took to Twitter to mock the network’s decision (which has since been removed): “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!”
Moving outside of the limited 140-character world of Twitter, Vertue revealed to The Independent that she knew CBS was interested in developing a modern day Sherlock Holmes series, because the network previously approached Sherlock bosses about wanting to remake their series – a series that’s currently on the air and that is co-produced and broadcast by PBS in America:
We understand that CBS are doing their own version of an updated Sherlock Holmes. It’s interesting, as they approached us a while back about remaking our show.
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.
While Vertue did confirm that CBS assured Sherlock producers at one time, things can change over time, especially as a project is developed further. After what may be a change of executives at the network, changes in writers and showrunners, things that were once assured have the possibility of falling to the wayside.
Thankfully, Vertue (as well as everyone else involved in Sherlock) isn’t going to allow that to happen. In what may be the most indirect (yet direct) warning that any UK television producer has publically given an American television network (though in polite fashion), Vertue elegantly states:
We are very proud of our show and like any proud parent, will protect the interest and wellbeing of our offspring.
While not out-right threatening CBS with legal action, the wording does lend itself to the assumption that if something were to negatively impact Sherlock, BBC’s legal department will be at the ready.
But what exactly could Sherlock make a case about? At what point could the BBC take legal action again CBS’s Elementary? Thankfully, The Independent asked copyright specialist Margaret Tofalides that exact question.
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.
And therein lies the problem for CBS. How is a network supposed to develop a pilot that needs to be continuously and extensively vetted by its legal department in order for it to make it to air? While subtle similarities may show up here and there, the sheer amount of work and potential legal battles that may come from attempting to bring about one new series to air isn’t worth it.
Sherlock season 2 airs in May on PBS. Expect Sherlock season 3 Summer 2013. Expect CBS to make a decision on Elementary this May.
Follow Anthony on Twitter @anthonyocasio