It was a case fit for Sherlock Holmes and his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson: The Case of the Rightful Copyright Owner. An author sued Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate seeking a declaration from the court that characters, traits and story elements from the popular detective stories were free for public use.
Late last month, a Chicago judge held that Sherlock Holmes story elements (characters, traits, dialogue and settings) from four novels and 46 short stories published before 1923 are in the public domain (meaning material that’s not protected by copyright and free for public use) and, therefore, available for public use without a license. However, the court found that some elements of Doyle’s works written after 1923 (namely, a character, character trait, and storyline) are subject to copyright protection and may require a license from the copyright holder. (The opinion, Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., notes that ten short stories remain under copyright protection.)
U.S. Copyright law allows for protection of a work for the life of the author, plus seventy years. In the case of corporate works for hire, the term of protection is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.
In a statement on the “Free Sherlock” website, plaintiff Leslie Klinger reacted to ruling. “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world. Whether it’s a reimagining in modern dress [like CBS’ Elementary], vigorous interpretations like the Warner Bros. fine Sherlock Holmes films, or new stories by countless authors inspired by the characters, people want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression[,]” Klinger said. Klinger’s book, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, is scheduled to be published later this year by Pegasus Books.
The Sherlock Holmes decision came days before January 1, 2014, or Public Domain Day. That’s the day each year when copyrights expire and published works enter the public domain. According to the Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, no published works will enter the public domain for another five years–until 2019.