Sherlock Holmes copyrights are an insane hairball

Robbo sez, "The Independent Filmmaker Project has a great post examining the nonsense which continues to surround Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most loved character, Sherlock Holmes (now 125 years old) , and whether he resides not just at 221B Baker Street - but also in the public domain."

According to the lawsuit all the Sherlock Holmes stories entered the public domain under the laws of the United Kingdom and Canada in 1980. However, with the passage of the U. S. Copyright Act of 1976 the author of a work that had passed into the public domain in the United States, or his heirs, were entitled to restore the work to copyright in the United States under certain conditions. In 1981, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last surviving child of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, applied for registration of the copyright to “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of stories. This work is comprised of 12 stories that were first published in various periodicals between 1921 and 1927, and the collection was first published as a book in the United States in 1927.

The complaint asserts that the Doyle estate sent a letter to Pegasus Books threatening to prevent publication of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” unless it was paid a license fee. Kingler’s prior publisher, Random House, had reluctantly paid $5,000 fee for an earlier Klinger collection he edited titled “A Study in Sherlock,” even though Klinger believed he was not legally required to do so. The suit asks the court to make a declaratory judgment, establishing that the basic “Sherlock Holmes story elements” are in the public domain under U.S copyright law. Klinger claims that the stories in his new collection avoided drawing on copyrighted elements introduced in any of the Holmes stories published after January 1, 1923.

In a 2004 decision, a U.S District court judge Naomi Reice Buchwald determined that of Doyle’s 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, nine might still be under copyright.[2]Although the character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, various storylines, dialogue and characters that first appeared in these nine stories could be protected under U.S. copyright law. A copyright for a derivative work based on a prior work does not create copyright protection retroactively for the underlying work but can protect new material that has been added.

Attentive readers will remember last month's post about the scholar who is suing the Holmes estate over this question.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Public Domain [Mark Litwak/IFP]

(Thanks, Robbo!)