Writer, Doyle estate dispute copyright on Sherlock


CHICAGO (AP) — It’s the kind of puzzle that might have amused Sherlock Holmes himself.
that copyright protections have expired on nearly all of Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle’s tales about the pipe-puffing detective in the deerstalker
hat, are writers free to depict the character in new mysteries without
seeking permission or paying license fees?
A federal judge in
Chicago says yes, so long as they don’t stray into territory covered in
the 10 stories still protected by copyright. Not so fast, says the Doyle
estate, which is considering an appeal this month. Descendants of the
Scottish physician and author argue he continued to develop the
characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson in the later works so they should
remain off-limits until the remaining copyrights run out at the end of
"It’s a bogus argument. It means you can reprint Conan
Doyle’s own stories freely but you can’t make up a new story? It doesn’t
make logical sense," said author Leslie Klinger, who brought the case
against the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. to settle the matter.
last week’s ruling in hand, Klinger plans to finish work on "In the
Company of Sherlock Holmes," a book of original short stories featuring
characters and other elements from Conan Doyle’s work. He is co-editing
the book with plans to publish this fall.
If appeals judges hold
it up, the ruling could lift the threat of legal action for the untold
scores of writers out there churning out pastiches and fan fiction
without permission. Most of them fly under the radar. In Klinger’s case,
the estate demanded $5,000, he said.
"Whatever decision they make
will essentially determine the fate of many characters, not just
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but very intricate characters such as
James Bond. … What happens as copyrights expire on Ian Fleming’s
original stories?" said Doyle estate attorney William Zieske.
ruling could also weaken the value of the Sherlock franchise to the
point that major publishers and movie producers could also decide to
move ahead with projects without licensing deals, said Paul Supnik, a
Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney specializing in copyright and
entertainment law who was not connected with the case.
"At the
very least it’s going to affect the bargaining power as to what the
estate can do in trying to sell it to the studio," Supnik said.
the heart of the dispute is whether a character can be copyright
protected over an entire series of works. The Doyle estate argues that a
basic element of copyright law allows for that if the character is
highly delineated, as opposed to a two-dimensional cartoon-like
character who doesn’t change much over time.
In ruling against the
estate, Judge Ruben Castillo called that a "novel legal argument" that
was "counter to the goals of the Copyright Act." The lawsuit was filed
in Chicago because a literary agent for the Doyle estate is based in
There’s no question that Holmes and Watson are highly
complex characters. Conan Doyle produced a total of four Sherlock Holmes
novels and 56 stories between 1887 and 1927.
Klinger argues that
everything you really need to know about Holmes and Watson is in the
novels and stories published before 1923 that are in the public domain
in the U.S. That includes their family backgrounds, education and a slew
of character traits: Holmes’ Bohemian nature and cocaine use, erratic
eating habits, his Baker Street lodgings, his methods of reasoning, his
clever use of disguise, his skill in chemistry and even his weapon of
choice, a loaded hunting crop.
"Everything that the lay person
would think of as being a characteristic of Holmes or Watson is in those
pre-1923 stories," said Klinger, who is also an attorney and lives in
Malibu, Calif. "In fact, some would say you could pick up almost
everything you need from the very first story."
The other 10
stories have new biographical footnotes, including a mention that Watson
had a second wife and played rugby in his youth.
But the Doyle
estate says there are other significant elements in those later stories,
such as Holmes’ "mellowing" personality and the shift in Holmes’ and
Watson’s relationship from flatmates and collaborators to closest
Thus, to depict Holmes and Watson based only on parts of
the canon that pre-date 1923 would be something of an artistic crime and
ignore the extent to which the characters continued to evolve, said
Doyle attorney Zieske.
"That’s the essence of literature, how
people change through different experiences," Zieske said. "And to
reduce true literary characters to a cardboard cutout, parts of which
can be carved off, I think does literature a great disservice."
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