By: Briana Polan
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes in 1887, as the featured character in his novel, A Study in Scarlet. Since then, three additional books and fifty-six short stories center on this intriguing character. It is no surprise that other authors, publishers, and producers anxiously awaited the character’s emergence into the public domain. Over the past decade, numerous books, television shows and films based on the works of Sir Conan Doyle were released. Although some works were granted licenses, others were created under the belief the character and his counterparts were already in the public domain. In response, Sir Conan Doyle’s estate threatened suit against one editor, Mr. Klinger, claiming that the character Sherlock Holmes was still under copyright protection.
Copyright duration has undergone a drastic transformation over the past century. At the time A Study in Scarlet was published copyright protection was for twenty-eight years, with an option to renew for an additional fourteen years pending all formalities were in tact. The 1909 Act extended the renewal term to twenty-eight years and finally with the implementation of the 1976 Act, works published with notice prior to January 1, 1978, were provided ninety-five years of copyright protection. Depending on the date published, works were either granted automatic renewal or required manual renewal. Today, works are granted protection for the life of the author plus an additional seventy years. Naturally, authors and producers assume that a character copyrighted prior to 1923 is in the public domain.
Despite the math, Sir Conan Doyle’s estate claims that the author’s more recent novels and stories that are still under copyright contribute to the development of Sherlock’s character. With this rationale, authors can maintain protection of their characters in eternity so long as those authors continue to incorporate and evolve their characters in new works. Although copyright duration has extended over the years, following this line of thinking goes against the fundamental policies of copyright law. Not only does copyright strive to protect authors from infringement, it also must live up to its fundamental goals, to incentivize the production and dissemination of new works and allow for the production and protection of works in the public domain. Therefore, copyright law must balance the interests of both the author and the public.
Mr. Klinger preempted suit and filed a complaint against the estate and was granted summary judgment in his favor. In their last efforts to protect their characters, Sir Conan Doyle’s estate appealed summary judgment. This past November, the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal, thus officially rendering Sherlock Holmes and his fellow characters into the public domain. Ten short stories remain copyrighted however only those elements that are new to those stories may be protected. Just as parents must eventually let their children go, so must authors, allowing those characters to disseminate and evolve.
Bio: Briana is a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law. She is currently a 2L at Suffolk Law with a concentration in Intellectual Property. She holds a B.A. in Music Performance and Music Education from Connecticut College and a M.M. in Instrumental Conducting from the University of Miami.