Conan Doyle Estate Asks Supreme Court To Put Sherlock Holmes Back Under Copyright
from the the-case-of-the-missing-public-domain dept
For a while now, we’ve been following the lawsuit concerning whether or not Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. Back in June the 7th Circuit appeals court ruled that Holmes was in the public domain, followed up by a more thorough slamming of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate in a follow-up ruling concerning rewarding attorneys’ fees. We saw some reporters claim that the case was now “over,” but that was clearly not true. The Estate had made it clear it intended to appeal, having already asked the Supreme Court to block the appeals court ruling from taking effect (a request that was quickly denied). But that was clearly the preamble to a request to the Supreme Court to hear the case.
That request has now come, with the Estate arguing that there are serious questions still in play. Specifically, the Doyle Estate raises three questions for a potential Supreme Court hearing. As a bit of background, the case was not directly started by the Estate, but rather author Leslie Klinger, who filed for declaratory judgment saying he wasn’t infringing since the character was in the public domain. In the past, Klinger’s publisher had felt pressured into taking out a license, and Klinger felt that this demand was unfair and unjust. The Estate tried to argue that even though all but one book of Holmes stories were published before 1923 (which puts them in the public domain), the fact that another book was published after 1923 with new facets to the character meant that the entirety of the character of Holmes (and Watson) were still covered by copyright. The argument was, more or less, that as long as the character is still “developing,” and not complete, the copyright clock can be kept ticking. The courts completely rejected this argument and pointed out that the public domain is the public domain.
However, the Estate is making one last go of it, with a two-pronged attempt to get the Supreme Court to reconsider:
- Whether it was reasonable to rule on the case prior to Klinger finishing his book. This is a bit of misdirection. The Estate argues that the case shouldn’t have been decided until Klinger finished his book since you can’t determine if something isn’t infringing if it hasn’t been produced yet. This question was easily dismissed by the courts because (1) the Estate had been agitating for a license already, and that had created publishing issues for Klinger and (2) the courts made it clear that they were just saying that the early works were in the public domain — and if Klinger’s eventual book infringed on anything from that final (still copyrighted) Holmes book, the Estate could bring a specific case on that issue.
- The big question: whether or not a “dynamically developing character” can continue to extend the clock on copyright. Here, the Doyle Estate claims that there’s a circuit split, in particular with a ruling from the 8th Circuit (which we covered here) concerning the Wizard of Oz (and people making t-shirts out of images from a movie poster that clearly was in the public domain). Admittedly, that was a terrible decision — effectively allowing some reclamation of the public domain by copyright law. If the Supreme Court takes this case, hopefully it will be to just smack down that 8th Circuit decision and bring it into compliance with the 7th Circuit’s point that things that were in the public domain stay in the public domain.
The Supreme Court is not always clear in indicating which cases it will take and which it will pass over, and I wouldn’t recommend betting in favor of the Court taking this case. Chances are it will pass. However, if it does take on the case, hopefully it will only be to protect and preserve the public domain.