Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Cold, Inhuman Sherlock Holmes Belongs To The Public

Copyrights have a finite existence. After the term has expired, the written work belongs to the public.

You can download a free version of The Count of Monte Cristo if you like, because M. Dumas is long dead and he can no longer control what is done with his characters or his novels. In a way, his patent expired and anyone can use the work. You could write a novel based on one of his characters, a modified version of fanfic, and not be taken to court for violating copyright.
Copyright infringement, Mr. Watson

Such is the case with Sherlock Holmes, a beloved character who entered the scene in 1887. Despite the author's attempt to kill the character off, Sherlock Holmes continued to experience adventures and solve crimes well into the 1920s. Only Arthur Conan Doyle's death brought an end to the tales of the fictional British detective.

The literary estate of Arthur Conan Doyle inherited the copyright on the author's works, and with the market still hot for Sherlock, it became the licensing agent for anything related to the novels. All those films featuring Basil Rathbone? Every one of them was money into the literaty estate's pocket in licensing fees.

Leslie Klinger edited an annotated version of some classic Holmes stories, and dutifully paid the licensing fee to the estate. However, he knew that books fell into the public domain after a set period of time, and when he set out to create another annotated collection, he did not write a new cheque. Why pay for the license if the license is not required? There is a limited amount of money to be made in peddling annotated works and who can afford to spend needlessly these days?

Not willing to part with an income stream, the estate declared that it would stop book sales, which would leave publisher Penguin with a lot of pulp to dispose of if it went ahead with the book release. Mr. Klinger was not willing to back down, and it was up to the courts to decide.

And so the literary estate lost on the first round, and has just been handed a second defeat on appeal. The judge has found that copyrights do not go on forever, and the copyright on the novels that Mr. Klinger was editing had passed from this earth. He did not have to pay a fee for works that had fallen into the public domain.

As for the later stories penned after 1923, those continue to enjoy the privileges and benefits of copyright protection. Therefore, if you choose to pen your own version of the famed detective, you may not use elements introduced in those works. According to the estate's representative, that would mean your Holmes would not be warm and human, and could not mention a second wife. Or be shown growing increasingly friendly with Dr. Watson. Does that mean they could not be depicted as gay lovers, or is that more than a growing friendship? Consult your solicitor on that one.

Just keep him cold and heartless, writers, or you'll be facing the ire of the literary estate in a court of law.

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