Legal Update – Sherlock Holmes character in the public domain (mostly)

The ruling states that all elements, including characters and events, of the Sherlock Holmes mythos published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.On Dec. 23, the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois issued a declaratory judgment in favor of the plaintiff, author and editor Leslie Klinger, on the subject of the Sherlock Holmes copyright. The ruling states that all elements, including characters and events, of the Sherlock Holmes mythos published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.

The public domain:

What does it mean to be in the public domain? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, being in the public domain merely means that the work is no longer eligible for copyright protection, even if registered. “Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner,” they note. This is good news for those who make use of once-copyrighted material, such as Librivox audiobook readers, who take advantage of the public domain status of books to produce free amateur audiobooks.

This handy guide may be helpful in sorting out the complicated timeline for when various types of copyrighted material enter the public domain.

The case:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published four novels and 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes from 1887 to 1927. Ten of these short stories were published after 1923. The plaintiff in the case was a co-editor of an anthology of stories featuring the infamous detective. As the anthology was to be published, the Doyle estate asserted their copyright ownership over the character and demanded that the plaintiff enter into a license agreement with them. The plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment, which means that the court delivers a legally binding ruling on the issue.

The court found that any elements related to Sherlock Holmes which were published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. They have, the court said, reached the end of the statutory period of copyright protection available. Even though the Doyle estate argued that the character was evolving over the entire time period and should remain protected, the court held that the pre-1923 elements were separable from the post-1923 elements (such as Watson’s second wife and the retirement of Holmes). Therefore, the post-1923 elements remained protected, but those that came before were in the public’s hands.

Takeaways:

Knowing what can and cannot be used in some older works can be a tricky analysis that may require professional advice.The takeaway from this case is to understand the role that the public domain plays in copyright, and the importance of separating protectible from unprotectible elements under copyright law. If there are any questions as to the length of copyright protection, it is best to consult with an attorney before getting embroiled in a legal dispute. Knowing what can and cannot be used in some older works can be a tricky analysis that may require professional advice.

Leave a Comment