The situation is muddled by differing copyright regimes in America and elsewhere. No one disputes that the copyright has expired on Conan Doyle’s work anywhere where protection ceases 70 years after an author’s death (he died in 1930). Yet when America reformed its copyright rules in 1978 to introduce a “life plus” model in harmony with the rest of the world for works created starting in 1978, it retained its older term-limited system for property created between 1923 and 1977. Works produced within that range have had their expiration extended to a fixed 95-year term from first publication; anything produced earlier is in the public domain. This umbrella of protection covers ten Holmes stories published in America for the first time as part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes in 1927. These stories are still under copyright until January 1st 2023.
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The estate also asserts some trademark rights on the Holmes characters, but Mr Klinger confirms to your correspondent that this was not part of the license claim. Jennifer Jenkins, the director of Duke University’s Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, says trademark protection would be inapplicable, in any case. “Trademark law doesn’t fit what they’re claiming to own or what they’re trying to stop,” she says. Ms Jenkins also dismisses any copyright claim the estate might have to any pre-1923 elements of Holmes’s biography. “The problem is that Sherlock Holmes and Watson are quite clearly in the public domain.” The estate did not respond to a request for details about its intellectual property.
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An expert in the duration of copyright terms in America, Peter Hirtle of Cornell University finds no basis for the Conan Doyle estate to claim general ownership over aspects of Holmes from stories that are in the public domain. “Let’s imagine that the fact that Holmes plays the violin was included for the first time in one of the copyrighted stories,” he says via e-mail, “then it can’t be included in any new story that draws on the public domain versions.” But if the “Company” stories rely entirely on public-domain elements, then the estate has no ground to stand on, he adds.
February 24, 2013