Judge Says That Sherlock Holmes Is In The Public Domain
from the but-this-isn't-over-yet dept
Almost exactly four years ago, we had a discussion on the curious case of Sherlock Holmes and the public domain. As we explained, nearly all of the books and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were published prior to 1923, putting them clearly in the public domain in the US. However, there was one remaining book of ten stories that was published after 1923, and still covered by copyright. Because of that, the Conan Doyle Estate has argued that Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and a variety of other facets of the stories remained covered by copyright because those remaining works were still covered. This goes against a lot of case law, but rather than challenge this, plenty of publishers, filmmakers, TV producers and the like have just lined up to pay the Estate to avoid having to go to court.
Finally, back in February, a couple of authors/scholars of Holmes filed for declaratory judgment to have a court declare that Holmes, Watson and a variety of other key “elements” were in the public domain. The Conan Doyle Estate flipped out, arguing that the character isn’t done until all works have been published, and thus the clock on the public domain doesn’t start ticking until the last work is published. It further argued, bizarrely, that it would be absolutely horrific if, somehow, Holmes made it into the public domain, because it would create “multiple personalities” as the public might (gasp!) actually do stuff with Holmes. As we pointed out at the time, that’s kind of the point of the public domain.
And, indeed, a judge has now ruled on summary judgment in the case, saying that Holmes, Watson and a variety of story elements published prior to 1923 are, in fact, in the public domain. The judge was not impressed by the arguments from the Conan Doyle Estate:
Conan Doyle argues that the effect of such a holding will be to dismantle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters into a public domain version and a copyrighted version…. This is, however, precisely what prior courts have done. Silverman and Pannonia Farms instruct that characters and story elements first articulated in public domain works are free for public use, while the further delineation of the characters and story elements in protected works retain their protected status. Conan Doyle argues that the precedent exemplifed in Silverman should pertain only to two-dimensional, “flat” characters and not to complex, three-dimensional characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson…. Conan Doyle fails to offer a bright line rule or workable legal standard for determining when characters are sufficiently developed to warrant copyright protection through an entire series, nor does it provide any case law that supports its position. Conan Doyle’s proposed distinction runs counter to prevailing case law…. The effect of adopting Conan Doyle’s position would be to extend impermissibly the copyright of certain character elements of Holmes and Watson beyond their statutory period, contrary to the goals of the Copyright Act.
There was a second issue at play here — concerning certain story elements that were first published in those post-1923 stories, which the authors hoped would be declared in the public domain as well, basically by arguing that the “elements” were not things that could be covered by copyright in the first place. As is made pretty clear by the judge’s ruling, Leslie Klinger, who brought the suit, did a pretty bad job of making this particular part of the case, ceding arguments that probably shouldn’t have been ceded, and failing to fully develop the argument. The judge therefore rejected that part, but it’s possible those elements could be subject to further review assuming the rest of the case moves forward.
There was one other part of the ruling that was somewhat important. In our post about the the Conan Doyle Estate’s response, we noted that the Estate tried to argue that every work after the initial Sherlock Holmes story should not be considered a “derivative work,” so various case law concerning derivative works should not apply. As we noted, there was no legal basis for this, and the only real reason the Estate seemed to come up with was that it was somehow insulting to suggest later works were “derivative.” Thankfully, the judge rejects that argument as well.
Of course, the Conan Doyle Estate is not done fighting. Not only has its lawyer said that the Estate is “exploring an appeal,” but also hinted at using trademark law to stop other attempts at using the characters. Stay tuned on that front…
Still, this should be seen as a victory for the public domain. Wednesday is “Public Domain Day,” as January 1st is the date around the globe that new works enter the public domain. As we’ve noted repeatedly in the past, the US hasn’t had an actual public domain day in many, many years, thanks to constant copyright term extension. So it’s nice that Judge Ruben Castillo at least gave a tiny slice of the public domain back to the public.