Sherlock Holmes to Remain in Public Domain After Supreme Court Declines Case

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The Supreme Court declined to take a case brought by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle that challenged whether the character of Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain.

The high court’s non-action means author Leslie Klinger does not have to pay license fees to the estate as he publishes modern anthologies of works featuring the famous detective, as long as they don’t infringe on new elements of the character Doyle introduced in works published in the 1920s that still fall under copyright.

The estate demanded and received $5,000 from Random House when it published Klinger’s anthology of modern Holmes stories. But when Klinger sought to do a follow-up, and the estate sought a license fee from Pegasus Books, the publisher apparently considered it a latent threat to sue and refused to publish the anthology. Klinger then sued.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Illinois again ruled in favor of Klinger, concluding that they “could find no basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration.” Judge Richard Posner, in an opinion awarding Klinger almost $31,000 in attorneys fees, wrote that the “Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the ‘rational’ writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand.”

He added, “It’s time the estate, in its own self interest, changed its business model.”

The estate had argued that the depiction of Holmes and other characters in works still under copyright were more “rounded” than those in the public domain, meaning they could still claim protection for the character in new works. But the appellate court rejected that argument.

The estate has given its stamp of approval to “Sherlock” on PBS and “Elementary” on CBS, but it’s unclear what the status will be or if they are currently paying license fees. Spokesmen for the production company behind “Sherlock” and “Elementary” could not immediately be reached.

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  1. R. Shaw says:

    Research has found, in Britain the standard for copyrights is 50 years; acknowledging that close to 2 generations is sufficient time to receive any literary awards.

  2. Oliver_C says:

    I’ll believe copyrights should last forever when someone convincingly persuades me that stand-up comic Al Murray — a direct descendant of William Makepeace Thackeray, born a century after his death — should receive royalty payments from the Kubrick movie ‘Barry Lyndon’.

  3. I got a feeling what happened to the Sherlock Holmes case being public domain will happened to the family that created the Superboy/Superman will finally loses their lawsuit the same way.

  4. Jennifer says:

    for fun tutorials on copyright law and other legal questions check out Law and the Multiverse blog. It is now held that US copyright law is to encourage the production of new works for the public benefit by ensuring the creators of new works can profit from them. I am not clear what the benefit to the public is of having rights continue after the death of the creator, when they are obviously not providing new works. A large part of the extension of copyright in the US seems to be based on corporations holding the rights.

  5. rocky-o says:

    i think its sad that creations even need to have copyright expirations…doyle created something that should always remain part of the doyle estate…just like in music, when paul mccartney lost the rights to his own songs because michael jackson outbid him (and then subsequentially lost them to his record company, because his last album, while he was still alive, sold so poorly…)…tell me that isn’t so wrong…

    • Oliver_C says:

      Conan Doyle died in 1930, 85 years ago; any person with any living memory of having met and spoken with him would now be at least 90 years old.

      Why shouldn’t strangers eventually be able to access Doyle’s stories? After all, even Doyle’s direct decendants are now as much strangers to him — never having met him — as you or I are.

    • Man of La Mancha says:

      Let the descendants of Sir Arthur come up with their OWN creations to live off of. I don’t want my grandchildren living off of my innovations’ royalties. I want them to succeed on their own and bring NEW things into the world. We do NOT need to protect spoiled, useless heirs.

  6. I didn’t know that there wasn’t a higher court because it seem that there is someone is going to court to get the last decision didn’t go there way. Look at the Spiegel/Schuster estate is still trying to get Superboy/Superman copyright for year and still didn’t win. I believe that copyright will end real soon.

  7. I got a feeling that the Doyle estates will goes to a higher court to get another judge to get the latest decision overturn.

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