A blog reader emailed me the other day to ask if I’d heard about this news story concerning the copyright regarding the Sherlock Holmes characters. I had, in fact. Being a Sherlockian myself (#1 in Minnesota, #9 in U.S. in Holmes Trivia on “QuizUp”… just sayin’), and someone who has a vested interest in things like copyrights, I found it to be a very interesting turn of events.
Some background: Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain in Britain for years, but not completely so in the United States. The holdup in the U.S. has been the ten stories that Doyle published after 1922. Thanks to the US Copyright Act of 1976, authors or their heirs could reapply for copyrights to works that had entered the public domain but were produced after January 1, 1923. Those re-established copyrights could then extend until 2023. In 1981, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last surviving child of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, applied for such registration of the copyright to “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle’s last collection of stories first published in the U.S. in 1927. Ten of the twelve stories in this collection were created after 1923, and U.S, copyright law applies to them after her successful registration.
The Doyle estate has argued that, although the four Holmes novels and most of the 56 short stories Doyle wrote might be fully in the public domain in the U.S., the characters themselves were protected by copyright because there had been “significant and on-going development” of the characters in those last stories that were inseparable from the characters themselves, and therefore no one could create new works with those characters without violating their copyright.
The story linked above says that a U.S. judge has ruled that the characters of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John Watson and most related characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are in the public domain here in the U.S., and that creators like filmmakers, artists, writers and such are free to produce Holmes related works without having to pay a licensing fee to the Doyle estate. Illinois Judge Ruben Castillo rejected the Doyle Estate’s argument, saying that only the specific plot elements, dialogue and new elements from the later stories are under copyright protection, not the characters themselves.
This is a fairly big deal. It means that anybody can make a film, write a story, or do a comic book about Sherlock Holmes without paying a licensing fee to the Doyle Estate, so long as they avoid the specifics of the stories still under copyright. I have no idea what kind of money those licensing fees amounted to, but I am sure the Conan Doyle estate isn’t happy about it. The rest of the world? Yes! I’ve actually always wanted to do my own comic book versions of the “canon” stories. Maybe now I will in my spare time (snort).
The Doyle estate is already planning an appeal, of course. I’m not sure they’ll be able to get it overturned, though. One can certainly argue that the characters themselves were well established before the post Jan 1, 1923 stories, and to try and sell the idea that no one can create something new with the characters without using the very few new backstory elements in those later stories is ridiculous.
Personally I don’t mind the idea of copyrights on a character living beyond the creator of that character as long as the copyright holders continue to do something with that character. Disney, for example, hasn’t been sitting around and collecting licensing fees from “Steamboat Willie”. They have actively grown and used the Mickey Mouse character and brand for decades upon decades. As far as I know, no one in the Conan Doyle family has done anything except milk their ancestor’s original 60 stories for all they are worth. If they aren’t creating with it, it should be released to the world to do some creating… like my forthcoming Complete Holmes graphic novel series! The best part is, the copyrights for the later stories expire in 2023, and as I won’t be half done with the older stories by then, I don’t have to worry about any copyrights!