California author wins Sherlock Holmes copyright case

Literary works and sometimes the characters within them are copyright protected. The length of protection varies under intellectual property laws depending on several factors, like when and whether a work was published and whether the copyright was renewed.

A California author is planning to publish a Sherlock Holmes-inspired book later this year. The estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the deductive detective and a series of five dozen Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, wanted the author to pay $5,000 for using Doyle’s famous characters in the new book. The author took the case to court.

The original Sherlock Holmes series spanned 40 years, from 1887 to 1927. Only 10 of the detective mysteries remain under the protection of U.S. copyright laws, with an expiration date of 2022; the other 50 tales are in the public domain.

The Doyle estate argued Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are so precisely portrayed that the characters should be copyright protected along with the last 10 stories.A federal judge thought the argument was unique but unjustifiable. Copyright infringement rules remain in force for the protected works but not for the individual characters.

The author said the proposed fiction draws from elements clearly revealed in the Doyle stories already in the public domain. The estate said character development was not confined to pre-1923, unprotected works, but the argument didn’t hold. The court’s decision frees the author from entering into any licensing agreement or gaining formal permission from the Doyle estate.

The retention of copyright protection is lucrative for authors and their estates. Once a literary work becomes the property of the public, licensing deals fall away and income is lost.

An intellectual property attorney understands the boundaries of highly-complicated copyright laws. A lawyer can solve legal issues for authors with new characters and others who want to create work inspired by existing stories.

Source: Associated Press, “Writer, Doyle estate dispute copyright on Sherlock” Jason Keyser, Jan. 04, 2014