|Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons|
Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories of Sherlock Holmes were published in the United States prior to 1923. According to copyright law, works published prior to January 1, 1923 in the U.S. are considered to be in the public domain. However, the argument made by the Conan Doyle estate is that the characters did not enter into the public domain because there were ten short stories which were published after the January 1, 1923 cutoff date.
The case started when author Leslie S. Klinger sought to publish a collection of stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes titled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes. Although Klinger paid a $5,000 licensing fee to the Conan Doyle estate, the publication of this collection of stories was delayed when the estate requested a second fee.
Klinger filed a civil complaint against the Conan Doyle estate last year, arguing that the Sherlock Holmes characters are in the public domain because the defining characteristics of the series can be found in the first fifty novels and stories. The Conan Doyle estate argued that the characters were “continually developed” over the course of both pre- and post-1923 stories so the copyright of the last ten stories should extend to the characters.
Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois relied on a similar case, Silverman v. CBS, concerning Amos n’ Andy radio scripts which lapsed into the public domain prior to 1948, but remained protected by copyright post-1948. The court held that the characters in the pre-1948 scripts were public domain, but any new character traits or elements introduced in the post-1948 scripts remained under copyright. Based on this case, Judge Castillo decided that the Sherlock Holmes stories have indeed entered the public domain.
The case may not end here as the Conan Doyle estate plans to appeal the decision, arguing that a literary character really does “not become entirely formed until the author has finished the last story.”
In the meantime, all but the last ten Sherlock Holmes
stories are free of copyright, allowing all you Holmes fans and creative
writers the option of writing your own stories based on the Sherlock Holmes
characters without getting permission or paying a fee to the Conan Doyle estate. Could we be seeing more interpretations in film
and literature of Sherlock Holmes in the future? It’s certainly possible.
|Photo Credit: Library of Congress|
For more information on the case, check out the court opinion, Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, 2013 WL 6824923, available on Westlaw, or the New York Law Journal article “Sherlock Holmes and the Public Domain: Not so Elementary?” by Robert W. Clarida & Robert J. Bernstein, available via LexisNexis Advance.