Copyright and the Case of Sherlock Holmes

There’s a war being waged over Sherlock Holmes’ copyright.  Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story appeared some 126 years ago, but the latest battle over copyright is being fought online and in court. Such are the risks of having too many fans spanning generations.

The dispute pits one of the leading scholars of Sherlock Holmes against author Conan Doyle’s estate. Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and the author of a nearly 3,000 page compendium on Holmes, has brought the case to court. He  argues that the bulk of the 4 novels and 56 stories are no longer covered by copyright. They are in the public domain. Jon Lellenberg, a one-time defense department official and now the Doyle estate’s American agent, does not leave much room for negotiation.

The passions run deep. The divide is along a generational lines, between the orthodox who remain true to the details of the original texts, and new fans who have used the original stories as a springboard to create new tales and updated Sherlock Holmes characters like CBS’ “Elementary” and the BBC’s “Sherlock.” The estate has always been assertive in its copyright claims. In the past, authors and filmmakers have preferred to pay rather than to undertake a legal challenge.

The two sides agree that Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes’ stories, from the 1920’s remain under copyright. The dispute is over the earlier stories. Leslie Klinger asserts that the earlier stories are in the public domain. The estate asserts that Holmes character wasn’t complete until Doyle stopped writing about him. For that reason, the entire genre should be covered by the copyright. There’s also the issue of the trademark. Trademark’s can exist in perpetuity.

The dispute exploded into public view at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, an exclusive  literary club for Sherlockian devotees, during its January meeting. Since then, it has expanded into social media. For a view of the scope of the debate there’s the #freesherlock hashtag on Twitter. The Baker Street babes have also been outspoken, supporting the lawsuit, in their blog. Lellenberg answers back regularly on his own blog. By all accounts the debate has gotten personal. Estate supporter Philip Shreffler,  has compared the Babes’ podcast to “a potting shed on which is scrawled desultory graffiti.” Not quite sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound good.

In case you find yourself wondering if this current debate rings a bell, it just might. Back in 1906 Conan Doyle threatened French author Maurice Leblanc with legal action if he used Holmes in his Arsene Lupin books. Lupin changed his character to Herlock Sholmes.

Enhanced by Zemanta