Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and Retired Copyright

Thanks to a legal battle between author, Leslie Klinger, and the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the tales of Sherlock Holmes are now in the public domain. What does that mean?

Works are moved from their protective copyright status to the public domain to balance the public’s interest in open access with the property interest of copyright holders. Overwhelmingly, works in the public domain are so old that their intellectual property rights are no longer applicable. Most of the works discussed in this blog are part of the public domain because enough time has passed since they were first published. Likewise, most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were already in the public domain before Klinger took the estate to court.

Sherlock Holmes became a literary sensation in the 1890s, the thirst for which didn’t dry up when the decade ended. To feed public demand, Conan Doyle continued writing and publishing Sherlock Holmes mysteries until 1927. While most of the Sherlock Holmes canon was moved into the public domain, appearing on public domain web sites, like Project Gutenberg, stories published between 1923 and 1927 were still protected under US copyright law.

The legal status of these last ten Sherlock Holmes stories complicated the legal status of the rest of the Sherlock Holmes stories because characters in fiction are part of a work’s intellectual property. When Klinger published his previous books, inspired by Conan Doyle, she had to pay a fee to his estate. Upon the publication of her second book, she decided to challenge the copyright status and won, thereby moving the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories into the public domain.

These controls over intellectual property influence the portrayal of characters, who have become classic tropes throughout literature and film. For instance, the Bram Stoker estate tried, but failed to maintain the kind of control over portrayals of Dracula that Conan Doyle’s estate maintained over Sherlock Holmes. As a result, we see rich and varied interpretations of Dracula’s character in literature and film dating back to the 1920s. Conan Doyle’s heirs previously controlled and restricted the ways in which Sherlock Holmes could be interpreted. It will be fascinating to see what happens next!

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