Plagiarism in Pop Culture: Elementary

With the character of Sherlock Holmes resting almost entirely in the public domain, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing rapid growth in new works based on the character.

One such example is the CBS show Elementary. The show features a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, and Dr. Watson, played by Lucy Liu, aiding the New York Police Department with some of their most difficult cases. 

Though the show features both a change of location and time period, it features the same acerbic detective that fans of the original stories will still recognize. Despite that, the new stories do take on a more modern tint, as this version of Holmes tackles killers and criminals, complete with all of the quirks and crimes of the 21st century.

However, in one episode, namely episode 10 of season 6 entitled Uncanny Valley of the Dolls, the motivation for the murder was as old as writing and art itself: Plagiarism. 

Most interestingly of all, it wasn’t even the most unusual part of the case…

Content Warning: Episode spoilers as well as some non-consensual pornography themes below…

The Plot

Sherlock and Watson at the Crime Scene

The episode begins with Holmes in an upscale apartment that the scene of a murder. The only “witness” to the murder is Skyler, a life-like and heavily computerized female sex doll.

The team learns that the victim, Bruce, worked on the doll and that Skyler was actually a take-home project for him. They then try to access the doll’s memory with the aid of Bruce’s employer but come up short as the doll turns out to be more “horny Alexa” and less actual robot.

Still, the team noticed that Skyler did not look like the other models and learned that the victim had created Skyler’s face. From there, they figure out that he had patterned the doll after an ex-girlfriend of his, prompting them to track her down for questioning. 

Watson and Holmes interview the ex-girlfriend.
Watson and Holmes Interview the Ex-Girlfriend

However, this proves to be a dead end as the ex-girlfriend, though understandably upset about the dolls, had an alibi for the murder and was working with her lawyer to file for an injunction against the company. As she put it, killing him wouldn’t get the dolls recalled, which is what she wanted.

From there, Watson and Holmes then track down a science fiction expert that was attacked by Bruce at a convention. The expert was revealing top-secret plans for “teleportation” (really just 3D printing over the internet) and Bruce became enraged wondering where he got the plans. 

Interviewing the Grad Students

Turns out, the expert had purchased the plans on the internet and Bruce had been involved in developing the technology. This prompted Watson and Holmes to visit Bruce’s previous employer. There, Watson met with three graduate students Bruce had worked with while Holmes attempted to track down his former professor.

The professor, however, had been taken by the U.S. military under the Invention Secrecy Act, which allows the government to seize control of any invention that it sees as a threat to national security.

The Professor Admits to Stealing His Students’ Work

After pulling strings, the NYPD was able to get an interview with the professor who revealed that he had underrepresented the contributions of his grad students in the research and that they were upset about it, even going as far as to send threatening emails. However, due to the Invention Secrecy Act, they were unable to go public with their allegations.

This put the suspicion back on the grad students, however, Watson and Holmes couldn’t determine which one was the killer. They then notice that Skyler’s memory had stored an unusual song it had heard. Realizing it may be the killer’s ringtone, they bring the three students in for questioning and make the arrest after one of their ringtones match the song.

Understanding the Plagiarism

Questioning the Grad Students Again

The story actually has two plagiarism/IP-related components to it.

The first is the non-consensual pornography angle involving the sex doll. Bruce used the likeness of his ex-girlfriend without permission, attribution or compensation. By all accounts, he did it simply because he was obsessed with her and wanted a doll that looked like her.

Understandably, this was deeply traumatic for her. Even though her name was not involved in the doll, one of the times being plagiarized may be a good thing, both she and Holmes/Watson were able to trivially connect the dots. That makes it likely others could have to and her position at a Catholic school could have been jeopardized.

Though they didn’t do much with this plot, dropping it after she was removed as a suspect, it highlighted the myriad of ways non-consensual pornography can harm victims. Not only did it harm her emotionally, with her calling it “Like revenge porn but in 3D,” but it also put her job at risk. 

However, unlike many victims of non-consensual pornography, she had a practical legal recourse available. It’s very likely that her injunction will be successful and the dolls will be recalled, either voluntarily or by force (after all, the company would not want this scandal either, the owner denied basing dolls on real humans without permission and was offended by the possibility). 

However, the main plagiarism plot, the one that prompted the murder, centered around the professor and his grad students. The professor took credit for the work of his grad students, angering them. However, due to the enforced secrecy, they couldn’t do anything about it, even within their school. 

This, in turn, is why one of the students leaked the documents, so the Invention Secrecy Act wouldn’t apply. Theoretically, they could then take credit for their discoveries and challenge their professor’s claims.

Amazingly, all of this is plausible. The Invention Secrecy Act is a very real act and it doesn’t just apply to national defense, but to threats to “economic stability”. Every year, more than a hundred patents are hit with secrecy orders with 5,680 such orders in effect at the end of 2016.

The other issue, a professor taking credit for the work of graduate students, is also strikingly common, at least anecdotally. Stories about such plagiarisms are rampant in academia, but the biggest obstacle to getting proper credit isn’t the Invention Secrecy Act, but the power dynamic.

As mentors and leaders, professors often find it easy to get such allegations dismissed. Furthermore, many students are unaware of the extent of the credit they deserve and simply trust their instructor is treating them fairly. The system is simply tilted too far against the students in these cases and, to make matters worse, many students are willing participants in the plagiarism.

In the end, while it’s fairly rare for a professor to completely omit a student or take complete credit for a student’s work, it is common, as in this case, for professors to downplay their role. Sometimes taking work that warrants co-authorship and making it little more than an acknowledgment.

This episode should serve as a cautionary tale for grad students to both understand what credit you deserve and fight for it BEFORE a paper is published. Afterward, it may simply be too late.

Bottom Line

For an episode with semi-autonomous sex dolls and teleportation, the plagiarism conversation was fairly grounded in reality. Both of the plagiarism-related plots dealt with the subject in a realistic way. Though they didn’t give the non-consensual pornography angle much time, it still covered the issue well.

If I had any gripe about this episode it would be that it didn’t explore how the professor shortchanged his students or why. Though most in academia will recognize a combination of greed and/or pressure to publish as motivating factors, they didn’t discuss it in the episode.

Instead, they glossed over his misdeed and largely moved on to the students again, using it solely as a means to refocus on the students as suspects.

Still, the episode did a great job making their plagiarism plot realistic. Though the main plagiarist didn’t get his comeuppance on camera, even being awarded a new position to continue his work, the fallout from this may still land him in trouble.

All in all, it’s a pretty realistic look at a very specific type of plagiarism and a type of plagiarism that continues to haunt academia. 

More Plagiarism in Pop Culture (In Reverse Order)

Want more Plagiarism in Pop Culture? There Are 42 others to check out!

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free