Once More, With Feeling: Sherlock Holmes Is In The Public Domain

from the elementary dept

Over the last few years, we've been covering the declaratory judgment lawsuit trying to establish that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. As explained, nearly all of the stories about Holmes were published prior to 1923, making them public domain in the US. However, there was one book with ten stories published after 1923, and those works are still covered by copyright, thanks to our nutty system of copyright extensions. Some Sherlock Holmes scholars/authors, Leslie Klinger and Laurie King, filed for declaratory judgment after the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate threatened the publisher of their upcoming book (after successfully pressuring a previous publisher) that Sherlock Holmes is still covered by copyright and a license must be obtained. Klinger argued that he wasn't using anything from those works that were published post-1923.

While the Doyle Estate ignored the start of the case, after initially losing, it suddenly became interested arguing that the "character" of Holmes was not complete, and thus the new works somehow magically could extend backwards in time to keep the older versions out of copyright. Furthermore, it argued that in a world where Holmes is in the public domain, something horrible like others creating "multiple" versions of Holmes might happen (even though that's exactly what the public domain is supposed to enable). While there was some confusion, the judge didn't buy the Estate's argument, and found Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson to be in the public domain.

The Estate appealed, and got the unfortunate honor of having Judge Richard Posner handle the case, which he has done quite thoroughly, completely dismantling the Estate's arguments in affirming that Holmes and Watson belong to everyone, and not to the Estate. The key line:
We cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration. When a story falls into the public domain, story elements—including characters covered by the expired copyright—become fair game for follow-on authors...
Posner notes that while the ten stories published after 1923 (it's not fair to call them "new") are derivative works of the original, and the only thing protectable in those are the "original elements added" in those later stories. Everything done before that is public domain.

Posner has little time for the Estate's wacky theory of how much "harm" would come from people actually making use of a Sherlock Holmes in the public domain, by accurately recognizing that it is the public domain that often inspires tremendous new creativity.
The estate offers the hypothetical example of a mural that is first sketched and only later completed by being carefully painted. If the sketch is allowed to enter the public domain, there to be improved by creative copiers, the mural artist will have a diminished incentive to perfect his mural. True; but other artists will have a greater incentive to improve it, or to create other works inspired by it, because they won’t have to pay a license fee to do so provided that the copyright on the original work has expired.
Posner also destroys the rationale of the Doyle Estate in which they have a made up concept of "flat" and "round" characters, where "round" characters are continually added to through newer and newer works, and the characters are never fully complete because of all that adding. Posner notes that this whole thing has nothing to do with copyright law:
The estate defines “flat” characters oddly, as ones completely and finally described in the first works in which they appear. Flat characters thus don’t evolve. Round characters do; Holmes and Watson, the estate argues, were not fully rounded off until the last story written by Doyle. What this has to do with copyright law eludes us.
Posner further points out that, for all the talk that the Estate is worried about the harm of "new" versions of Holmes it doesn't like, in truth it seems clear that the Estate just wants to get paid. Finally, Posner notes that this appears to be an attempt to create a perpetual copyright, which violates the "limited times" aspect of the Constitution:
With the net effect on creativity of extending the copy-right protection of literary characters to the extraordinary lengths urged by the estate so uncertain, and no legal grounds suggested for extending copyright protection beyond the limits fixed by Congress, the estate’s appeal borders on the quixotic. The spectre of perpetual, or at least nearly perpetual, copyright (perpetual copyright would vio-late the copyright clause of the Constitution, Art. I, § 8, cl. 8, which authorizes copyright protection only for “limited Times”) looms, once one realizes that the Doyle estate is seeking 135 years (1887–2022) of copyright protection for the character of Sherlock Holmes as depicted in the first Sherlock Holmes story.
That seems like a rather useful line given the likelihood of a copyright term extension fight coming up in the next few years...

Filed Under: arthur conan doyle, copyright, laurie king, leslie klinger, public domain, richard posner, sherlock holmes
Companies: conan doyle estate, perseus books


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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 16 Jun 2014 @ 3:26pm

    the Estate's wacky theory

    "The estate isn't wacky, it's a high-functioning sociopath; do your research!"

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