Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals suggested in a decision that the estate of “Sherlock Holmes” author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was committing “a form of extortion” by trying to get others to pay for the rights to use Holmes-related characters after the copyright had expired.
Doyle published his first Holmes work in 1887. His last Holmes work was a short story published in 1927. All but 10 of Doyle’s Holmes stories were published before 1923. Works published before that date are now in the public domain in the US.
The Doyle estate argued that Holmes was a “complex” character and that his background and characteristics evolved over time. The estate claimed that to deny copyright protected to the final version of the character would be to give him “multiple personalities.” That argument didn’t work at the district court level, and it didn’t fly with Judge Posner either:
When a story falls into the public domain, story elements – including characters covered by the expired copyright – become fair game for follow-on authors.
Judge Posner ridiculed the estate’s attempt to distinguish a case involving the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and TV sitcom characters, saying that those characters were “flat” and that Holmes was “rounded.” He also showed off his nerd credentials, saying that the estate’s argument was like contending that the copyrights on Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI (which came out first) were extended because of the later release of Episodes I, II, and III. (He apparently didn’t comment on Episode VII, scheduled for 2015.) He awarded the plaintiff in the Holmes case – an author seeking to bring out a collection of new Holmes-related stories — $30,000 in attorney’s fees, saying that he was performing a public service in fighting the Doyle estate.
Works can enter the “public domain” in several ways. Some works are automatically in the public domain from the time they’re created, because they aren’t able to be copyrighted (most government works are in this category). They can also enter the public domain due to the passage of time, or if certain formalities weren’t complied with. As of January 1, 2014, everything published in the US before 1923 is in the public domain. At the beginning of 2015, it’ll be 1924, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean that everything published since 1923 is still under copyright. As shown in this chart, it may be necessary to do some research to determine whether a specific work published since 1923 is or isn’t still under copyright.