The Great Sherlock Holmes is now a public figure. He’s in the public domain. For generations, since he was created by Arthur Conan Doyle in “A Study in Scarlett” in 1887, the great detective had belonged Conan Doyle and his heirs. There are a total of four Holmes novels and 56 stories written by Conan Doyle.
All of that changed earlier this week when a federal court in Chicago ruled that the copyright had expired on all but the last 10 of the Sherlock Holmes story. What that means is that Sherlock Holmes is now like the characters in Greek myths or Shakespeare. Authors, filmmakers and anybody else is free to create a Sherlock Holmes story (or to create a derivative work) as long as they’re not taken directly from the later works.
Shouldn’t the copyright have expired a while ago? 1887 is far beyond the time limits of U.S. copyright law. The Conan Doyle estate argued that the copyright should be measured from the publication date of the last collection of stories, “The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes,” published in 1927. That copyright expires in 2022. The Conan Doyle estate argued that characters develop of the time that an author writes of or about them. That would mean that the final appearance of the character is really the fully developed character and that copyright should be measured from that pub date.
Lawyers for the estate argued that to draw on earlier versions of a character is incomplete at best and destructive, “to reduce true literary characters to a cardboard cutout, parts of which can be carved off, I think does literature a great disservice.” The court felt otherwise, and gave the go-ahead for the publication of a book of new Sherlock Holmes stories written by a variety of authors to be published Holmes enthusiast Leslie Klinger in “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.” That collection is due to come out next fall.
Copyright is a balancing act. Its purpose is to protect the creative property of the author or artist and to encourage innovation and creation. On the other hand, it must not be so restrictive as to inhibit the creative work of others. For that reason the determination of the length of copyright has always been a sensitive topic. We do want to protect the property of the creator and in many cases his or her property. However, there does come a time when that work may become part of our cultural tradition and a source of inspiration for others.
Prolonging a copyright indefinitely by creating sequels and follow ups is a loophole in the copyright law. It can expand the term of copyright at the expense of holding back the creativity of others. It’s really a loophole in the law. While that’s not what happened here, it’s easy to see how this loophole could have been exploited. The court has now ruled that 126 years is enough and that now Sherlock Holmes belongs to all of us.