If you’ve been following along at home, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been conducting a remarkable rearguard campaign to ensure that the last ten Sherlock Holmes short stories do not enter public domain. Earlier this year, we looked at The case of the over-extended copyright and Sherlock Holmes and the case of public domain. The estate is now involved in a lawsuit where TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick says they are pushing a theory of copyright that might work to infinitely extend copyright protection to certain works:
For a few years now we’ve discussed a few times some of the confusion as to why Sherlock Holmes isn’t considered in the public domain in the US, even though he probably should be. As we’ve explained, all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books except for one are in the public domain. The Conan Doyle estate claims that having that single book under copyright means that the entire character is covered by copyright. Earlier this year, we pointed out that a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar (such things exist!) named Leslie Klinger had decided to file for declaratory judgment that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, following a legal nastygram from the Estate, arguing that it needed a license fee for Klinger’s latest book.
The Conan Doyle Estate has now filed its response to the motion for summary judgment, and it’s an astounding study of ignorance concerning copyright law and the public domain. While it admits that there are only ten short stories (from that one remaining book) that are under copyright, it still argues that those ten stories lock up pretty much everything else. First, it argues that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson continued to grow as personalities in those last ten stories, and that the stories were non-linear (i.e., some took place earlier in their fictional lives), it more or less encompasses everything, even those public domain works.
The facts are that Sir Arthur continued creating the characters in the copyrighted Ten Stories, adding significant aspects of each character’s background, creating new history about the dynamics of their own relationship, changing Holmes’s outlook on the world, and giving him new skills. And Sir Arthur did this in a non-linear way. Each of the Ten Stories is set at various points earlier in the two men’s lives—and even late stories create new aspects of the men’s youthful character. In other words, at any given point in their fictional lives, the characters depend on copyrighted character development.
Of course, if that’s true, it basically presents a way to make copyright on characters perpetual. You just need to have someone continue to release new works that have some minor change to the character, and they get to pretend you have a new starting point for the public domain ticker. That can’t be what the law intended.
Update, 3 January 2014: In a slight surprise, the court has ruled that the character is no longer protected under US copyright laws.
Update the second, 17 June 2014: The appeal has been heard, and the original decision has been confirmed and the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are in the public domain in the United States.
It is legal to publish stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson without the permission of their creator’s estate, because those characters are in the public domain. That’s a straightforward reading of current copyright law, and the Seventh Circuit confirmed it yesterday, upholding a lower court’s ruling that Holmes fan Leslie Klinger has the right to edit an anthology of Sherlock stories by contemporary writers.
It’s a welcome decision. The argument offered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate rested on the fact that 10 Sherlock stories were published after 1923 and therefore have not yet entered the public domain. Because those stories introduced new elements to Holmes’ and Watson’s fictional lives, the estate’s attorneys claimed that the characters were not fully created until after 1923 and therefore aren’t in the public domain after all. At a time when copyright terms are constantly being extended into the future, the estate was effectively attempting to enact a stealth extension into the past.