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Carol the Dabbler
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It's been asserted several times on this forum that all of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are now in the public domain (i.e., no longer protected by copyright).  As I understand it, this is true in the UK (and presumably in certain other countries as well).  But it's not quite true in the US, where (as I understand it) copyrights last 90 years, so Conan Doyle's last few Holmes stories are still under copyright here, and the last copyright won't expire till 2017.

 

However, the Conan Doyle estate has been using this fact to claim that they still own a US copyright on the original characters, not just on those last few stories.  As you might expect, this claim has been challenged in court, and a US district court judge has just ruled that the estate is wrong.  Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article:

 

Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, stated that elements introduced in Holmes stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath, or had a second wife — remain under copyright in the United States. (All of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain in Britain.)

 

But the judge rejected what he called the estate’s “novel legal argument” that the characters remain under copyright because, it claimed, they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927.

 

“Klinger and the public may use the pre-1923 story elements without seeking a license,” the judge wrote.

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Thanks! Very interesting. So is it illegal to give anybody in the USA access to those public domain sources (like project Gutenberg, for example) that have all the stories and not just the ones published before 1923?

 

And what if the "Sherlock" writers decided to include ideas like the rugby in their adaptation? Would the bits that make those references have to be cut out of an American release?

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All good questions, but I doubt that anyone could give you a really definitive answer at this point, since the whole thing is bound to be kicking around in the courts till at least 2017.  If Gutenberg includes the later stories, then I assume it's NOT based in the US, so they're operating under different laws (and access by Americans would fall into something of a gray area), but of course I'm no expert.

 

As for Sherlock, if they can just avoid mentioning John's rugby background till Series 5, they should be in the clear!  :D  But you're right, they could design the scripts in such a way that those references would be included in the PBS cuts (like they do when someone exclaims, "Shit!").

 

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I'm not sure where I read this, but I do recall that the BBC went the safe route, as most Sherlock adaptions do, and paid them off to shut them up and avoid legal entanglements. So they should be in the clear, with rugby or without.

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  • 1 month later...
  • 5 months later...

I'm not sure where I read this, but I do recall that the BBC went the safe route, as most Sherlock adaptions do, and paid them off to shut them up and avoid legal entanglements. So they should be in the clear, with rugby or without.

I don't remember hearing about that.

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As I said, I cannot remember where exactly I read that. Proably doesn't matter, anyway, because the US Supreme Court recently rejected a Sherlock Holmes copyright case. A lower court ruled against ACD's estate, and the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, so this should set a precedent.

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So I saw this today from the Smithsonian 

 

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sherlock-holmes-now-officially-copyright-and-open-business-180951794/?no-ist

 

BTW - one of my "Hollywood historian" friends tell me that that picture on the Smithsonian page is not John Barrymore as Holmes, but is in fact Clive Brook, with WIlliam Powell.

 

it seems to stem from this ruling 

 

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/17/conan-doyle-estate-loses-sherlock-holmes-copyright-appeal/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

 

So it would seem no longer under USA copyright either

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Neither of those cases -- or perhaps it's the same case in a lower and then a higher court -- have anything to say about the remaining US copyrights on the last few Conan Doyle stories.  What they're rejecting is the Conan Doyle estate's contention that the characters will be under copyright until the last story enters the public domain in 2017.  But the courts said that's nonsense, so movie-makers, pastiche writers, et al., are free to use the characters, as long as they avoid specifics from those last few stories.

 

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I think the Conan Doyle Estate's case is officially dead, at least in the US -- the Supreme Court has refused to hear their appeal of a Court of Appeals ruling.  Regardless of whether this is the same case I referred to in my initial post above, this presumably sends the message that the Supreme Court doesn't agree with the Estate.

 

So the last few Conan Doyle stories (those published after 1924) are the only ones still under copyright in the US, and even those will enter the public domain over the next three years.

 

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The stories were all copyrighted by Conan Doyle when he wrote them, and his estate has retained those rights -- but a copyright lasts only so many years.  (The number varies from country to country, but tends to be something a bit short of 100 years.)  Once a copyright expires, nobody can re-copyright the same story.  It enters the public domain, meaning that anyone can reprint it without paying a royalty, and anyone can use it as a basis for a story of their own -- whether it's amateur fan fiction or a professional novel or a television program like Sherlock.  I don't think the Conan Doyle Estate likes it any better than you do, but that's the way it is. 

 

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The stories were all copyrighted by Conan Doyle when he wrote them, and his estate has retained those rights -- but a copyright lasts only so many years.  (The number varies from country to country, but tends to be something a bit short of 100 years.)  Once a copyright expires, nobody can re-copyright the same story.  It enters the public domain, meaning that anyone can reprint it without paying a royalty, and anyone can use it as a basis for a story of their own -- whether it's amateur fan fiction or a professional novel or a television program like Sherlock.  I don't think the Conan Doyle Estate likes it any better than you do, but that's the way it is. 

Actually, I think there is a way for the heirs to copyright them, at least for awhile, isn't there? I'm not sure, but it seems like there's something like that in place. And remember all those photographs that Microsoft acquired and copyrighted a few years ago? I never understood how that happened (money in the right place, obviously, but .....)

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Well, the heirs can inherit a copyright, in the event that the author dies while it's still in effect.  And there used to be something about renewing a copyright -- I've seen that in the front of some old books.  The copyright laws have changed a number of times over the years, but I assume that the copyright on a given work is determined by the laws in effect at the time it was first copyrighted.  I just tried reading the Wikipedia article, but am still fuzzy on a number of details.

 

I'm not familiar with the Microsoft case you mentioned -- were they really old photographs, or what?  Had they previously been copyrighted by someone else?

 

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I don't really remember either, just that they'd obtained the copyright to these bazillions of photos that had previously ... uh, not been copyrighted by them. Whether they purchased the copyrights from the owners (I just realized that's a possibility) or did it some other way, I dunno.

 

I agree, copyright law is difficult terrain.

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  • 9 months later...

Hey, I just made a video on my YouTube channel about Sherlock and how it will soon be completely in the public domain and the copyright issues that have been going on between Mitch Cullin and the Conan Doyle estate. It would mean a lot if you would check it out! The video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDBxLIlU3ZA

I would also like to hear people's opinions on the Mitch Cullin book and its film adaptation? Thanks!

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Hey, I just made a video on my YouTube channel about Sherlock and how it will soon be completely in the public domain and the copyright issues that have been going on between Mitch Cullin and the Conan Doyle estate. It would mean a lot if you would check it out! The video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDBxLIlU3ZA

I would also like to hear people's opinions on the Mitch Cullin book and its film adaptation? Thanks!

 

Hi, Kirsty -- welcome to Sherlock Forum!  :welcome:

 

Thanks for posting your video -- you give a really good, clear synopsis of the situation that should be helpful to anyone who's curious about it.  And I agree, expansion of the Holmes universe is a good thing.  People will tend to encourage the good adaptations and ignore the bad ones.

 

Now that you're here, please stick around and join some of the discussions!  For starters, you might be interested in our thread on the Mr. Holmes movie.

 

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