From Victorian depictions by Robert Downey Jr. on the silver screen to more modern incarnations like BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary, audiences cannot avoid the super sleuth Sherlock Holmes. It seems now that Holmes’ pervasive presence is even bursting through the doors of our courthouses – and unfortunately for Mr. Holmes, it’s up to the Seventh Circuit to solve this case.
Over the course of his illustrious literary career, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Mr. Holmes. Today, only 10 of these stories remain under the 95-year copyright protection afforded to Sir Doyle’s estate. The Seventh Circuit recently held that the remaining 46 stories and four novels are in the public domain; that is, the copyright protection once owned by Doyle’s estate has expired. This ruling comes after the Doyle estate sued Leslie Klinger, an editor about to publish an anthology of original fiction starring Sherlock Holmes.
In the lawsuit, the Doyle estate attempted to prevent others from creating movies, books, television programs, and other popular media featuring Sherlock Holmes without first procuring a license. However, based on the plethora of popular Holmes portrayals accessible by hungry viewers today, their efforts were unsuccessful. The Doyle estate based its arguments on the idea that while many of stories featuring Holmes had entered the public domain, the later stories (on which the copyright protections expire in 2018) continued to develop from the older works. The Seventh Circuit reasoned that an author could not extend copyright protection of an original character by later altering that character.
This case presents very interesting questions in the realm of copyright law. Can courts articulate certain limitations for characters that appear in both works in the public domain and in works protected by copyright law? Klinger’s defense in this case was that he was not infringing on the 10 protected stories. There are some details in these stories that were not previously introduced in earlier works. For example, Holmes’ feelings about dogs and information about Dr. Watson’s second marriage. Klinger did not use these details in his anthology. In response, the Doyle estate tried to make a distinction between flat and round characters; Holmes fell into the latter category. His character arc, the estate argued, was not “rounded off” until the completion of the latest work (which was still under protection). In the end, the Court seemed to agree with Klinger that copyright protection was limited to the four corners of the page – or in this case, each of the 56 stories and four novels was afforded protection separately. Though a complex and thoroughly established character, Sherlock Holmes himself was not granted any sort of comprehensive copyright protection beyond the individual stories in which he appears.
This case begs questions about works that develop from one another. Certainly sequels of books or films build on details that were introduced in their predecessors. So when copyrights expire on earlier works, how will courts afford protection to the recurring details in the later works? In an age when characters are being adapted in so many ways, so many times, and in various modes of popular media, these questions will become more difficult. How will courts grapple with limiting or widening access to creative adaptations in the age of multimedia?