Tuesday 26 August 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the copyright case

So what exactly happened with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the past few months? It all starts with the eccentricities of US copyright law, in which a standard international “creator’s life plus seventy years” term sits uneasily alongside a fixed “ninety-five years from publication” term (this is due to what are sometimes known as the “Mickey Mouse Laws,” as they were pushed pretty hard by Disney’s lobbyists). Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930; in the UK and most of the world, his work entered the public domain in the year 2000. But in the US, with that fixed-term copyright, not all the stories went at the same time. The Holmes stories were published from 1887 to 1927, with the last ten stories appearing as a block in The Last Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and for the last few years, while dozens of stories and all four novels have been public domain, the Doyle estate has held on to that last collection. It only really applies if you’re selling books in the States, but that’s a pretty big market.

So that just means you can’t publish The Complete Sherlock Holmes in the States without permission, right? Not quite. The Doyle estate has aggressively pursued every publisher, TV company and film-maker trying to use the characters, threatening legal action if they don’t pay a licence. And since the licence fees weren’t onerous, most people have paid rather than fight (this happens in copyright disputes more often than you think). Most people, that is, except Leslie Klinger, whose collection of new Holmes stories, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, is due out this November. Klinger called shenanigans and went to court. The Doyle estate’s argument? That Holmes and Watson are “round” characters, and unlike “flat” characters, who are fully formed when they first appear in writing, the famous detective and his friend didn’t become fully “round” until the last stories were published. Ergo, anyone using the characters is drawing on those last few stories and infringing copyright.

The Doyle estate lost. They went to appeal, in the Seventh Circuit Court (beats me what that actually is) in June, and lost hard. Judge Richard Posner wonderfully called their argument “novel,” suggested their appeal “bordered on the quixotic,” and said that as long as you don’t mention anything from those stories (basically, Holmes’s feelings about dogs, his experience playing rugby, and Watson’s second wife), you’re fine. Then Klinger countersued for legal expenses, and Posner granted them this Monday, putting the boot in a little deeper, accusing the estate of “extortion” and suggesting they’d violated antitrust laws by instructing Amazon to pull sales of disputed titles. There’s still the Supreme Court to go, but basically, Posner’s saying: “You’ve lost, guys. Stay down.”

What does this mean for us? To be honest, we’d made the decision to go ahead with Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets before this even happened. “Flat” or “round,” the characters in our collection are pastiches, and we’re pretty sure the Doyle estate’s arguments would struggle to apply to our versions of Holmes and Watson. More importantly, though, we’re big believers in the act of creation and – although as publishers we should be all about the IP control – we know that creation has a lot to do with homage, reinvention and revision. Let a creator exploit his work for a fair period, but then allow it to become part of the weave that other creators draw upon. This is a great step forward, and our support goes out to Klinger and his publishers for having the courage to balls it out.

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets publishes October 2014 from Abaddon Books.
Pre-order it now: UK | US
Check out some of the nice things people have been saying and request a copy to review on netgalley.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Dan Abnett & Nik Vincent on creating speech

There are lots of reasons for creating speech patterns for characters. Sometimes it’s simply to differentiate one from another. It might be to imbue someone with a particular trait, say of annoyance or dizziness or of being an intellectual. Speech patterns maketh the man or woman in some instances.

Inventing a dialect for an entire community or race is something else, but can be key to the reader’s understanding, or can, at the very least help it.

Writers often invent dialects when more than one community appears in a novel, or, in SF or Fantasy, more than one race: dwarves and orcs speak differently from one another, as do humans from elves.

Dan Abnett & Nik Vincent 
Sometimes only one race inhabits a book, but in that instance it is too easy for the reader to automatically read that race as human. Give it a dialect and the problem is solved. Invest that dialect with nuance and describing the race is also a problem solved. They describe themselves in the language they use.

There are any number of ways to do this.

We begin by limiting or expanding vocabulary, by choosing particular words, which might, for example, be arcane and not in common use. We might make up words or use compound words. We might also choose specific forms of words not usually used. for example, we would usually refer to  a ‘speaker’, but for the purposes of a particular dialect we might choose to use ‘sayer’ instead.

We might choose never to abbreviate or use contractions for words like ‘not’ or ‘have’, so ‘wouldn’t’ becomes ‘would not’ and ‘could’ve’ becomes ‘could have’. We might go further still and never use negatives of any sort.

We might decide that a race has no words for things we take for granted so, for example, if something cannot be literally touched there might be no word for it, so ‘air’, ‘sky’, ‘breath’, ‘steam’ etc might be out.

There’s a great deal that can be achieved with tenses. Primitive races might use only two or three tenses. There is a lost language where the speakers referred to the future as being behind them and the past ahead of them. That would be an interesting way to write a race, and, now that I think of it, something that I’m not sure has ever been done in a novel. It’s an interesting philosophy, too, and instantly tells the reader something about that race.

A primitive culture in a novel might use only limited pronouns. They might never specify gender, for example.

It’s all about making choices.

Having made those choices, it’s about being consistent.

That’s the real trick, and that’s the difficulty, particularly when we’re narrowing the vocabulary and the tenses. If we limit ourselves it becomes harder to say all the things we want our characters to say, and it becomes tougher to differentiate between one character and another.

In those instances it’s useful if there’s a rhythm to the direct speech and forms of repetition. It’s important that the reader catch a refrain, becomes familiar with what is likely to come next.

Everything in writing has to be transparent to the reader. Nothing must seem difficult to understand on the page.

That of course, is where a good editor can be a huge help, making sure that the language is consistent, that nothing jars, that where tenses are limited there is no deviation. That there is music in the language of speech, because that’s what it is, after all... It is speech.

People, in the real World don’t speak in sentences. They don’t speak formally. They repeat themselves and hesitate and make a lot of unnecessary sounds that have little to do with words, and that’s not always possible in the written word.

Patterns and rhythm and shared words and phrases are possible, and those are the things that families and communities share. So, those are the things we try to use when we’re building a dialect.

Then the language that the races in the novel use must sit comfortably within the language of the book itself. While the voices of the characters of the races must be distinct there must be some echo of them in the text, some sense of their rhythm in the rhythm of the prose and in the story as a whole, otherwise the novel ceases to be about those characters.

It can be a bit of a balancing act and there’s a fine line to tread. And sometimes it’s possible to produce a book that is deceptively simple and linear from quite a complex set of experimental rules.

We hope we’ve achieved something a little like that with the Aux in the novel Fiefdom.

Fiefdom is out now in the US in paperback and kindle

Pre-order for the UK in paperbacklimited edition hardback and kindle

Thursday 7 August 2014

The absolute and final list of best ever reinvented Sherlock Holmeses

Recently the PR minions approached the editorial throne (think Iron Throne if it was made of red-inked manuscripts and crushed dreams) of David Thomas Moore with a small request:

"Oh great editor," we cried "in your divine wisdom please bestow upon us the definitive list of reinvented Sherlock Holmeses."  

And from his great throne he looked on in silent contempt. Scared, we fled back in to the darkness, vowing never to ask Dave for a favour again. But we were foolish. We did not take in to account the power of The Omniscient Beard, and moments before the confirmation that Sherlock Holmes truly does belong to his public broke, the following transmission was delivered by the editorial flying monkeys.

Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you Editor David Thomas Moore's all time favourite Holmeses: 

Heyho kiddywinks,

So, since Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets is all about different takes on Sherlock Holmes, I’ve been asked for my favourite reinvented Holmeses to entertain and slightly mystify you. They are as follows:

5. Robert Downey, Jr. in the 2009 steampunkorama. So, okay, it’s steampunk, it’s stupid, it’s an action movie. Fuck it. Downey’s portrayal perfectly balances Holmes’s disdain and his wildness alike, Jude Law’s Watson captures the good doctor’s long-suffering devotion brilliantly, their chemistry is just right, and the film hits a note – lightly comic, serious when it needs to be – that makes it a ton of fun to watch. More than anything, though, it’s the fight scenes: that wonderful device where Holmes predicts the fight to come and plans out his moves. As a device on its own it’s brilliant, and the way the second movie turns it on its head in the final showdown at Reichenbach is brillianterer.

4. George C. Scott in the delightfully quirky 1971 comedy They Might Be Giants. To be fair, I may be biased by my slight obsession with the nerdrock band of the same name. Scott plays Justin Playfair, a former judge who somehow forms the delusion that he is the great detective, and that Dr. Mildred Watson, the psychiatrist sent to certify him insane, is the Dr. Watson of his adventures. It’s a wonderful little comedy, and I urge you to check it out.

3. Michael Caine in the 1988 comedy Without A Clue. Holmes is a struggling actor hired by John Watson (the true genius) to be the face of his detective business. Caine is wonderful by definition, and the denouement in which he (without Watson’s help) battles his way through the clues and works out how to rescue his genius partner using his acting experience (and gets it right entirely by accident) is lovely. The bit where you’re certain he’s about get skewered and he turns out to be a brilliant fencer (because Victorian actor, obvs) is also very cool.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC series Sherlock. Because you’ve got to, haven’t you? A near-perfect modernisation of the stories, with one of the best Holmes/Watson pairings in Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, a tirelessly tactless Holmes (borderline autistic rather than “high-functioning sociopathic,” whatever he may claim), just about the creepiest Moriarty you could imagine and cheekbones any man or woman would die for. Mostly, though, it’s the way Moffat uses modern technology, with the text messaging and onscreen text effects that really sells it for me. Clever, slick, sexy and modern.


1. This. Because fuck you; I can’t stop watching this fucking thing.

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets edited by David Thomas Moore releases October 2014. 

Pre-order it now: UK | US
Check out some of the nice things people have been saying and request a copy to review on netgalley

About the Editor:
Born in Australia, David Thomas Moore has lived and worked in the UK for the past twenty years, and has been writing for roleplaying magazines, fiction websites and short story anthologies for eight years. The Ultimate Secret is his first long work. He lives in Reading with his wife Tamsin and daughter Beatrix. You're glad you met him.

You can follow him on @abaddondave