Wednesday, February 20, 2013

[Link] Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Now Being Sued to Settle Whether Sherlock Holmes is in the Public Domain

by Nate Hoffelder

I have long argued that copyright law has grown far out of proportion and no longer serves the needs of the creators, so I was pleased to read this week about a recently filed lawsuit that could prune back some of the overgrowth.

The noted Sherlockian scholar, Baker Street Irregular and prominent attorney Leslie Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library and The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, to name a few, has filed a civil lawsuit against the Conan Doyle Estate to determine that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are in fact in the public domain.

Mr Klinger is suing (according to the press release) because of the pressure that the Conan Doyle estate applied against Mr Klinger’s latest anthology of Sherlock Holmes inspired stories.

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be published by Pegasus Books and included Holmes stories by numerous well-known mystery/sci-fi/fantasy authors.  The anthology is on hold because the Conan Doyle estate contacted the publisher, asked for a fee, and threatened to block distribution of the anthology if the fee was not paid.

The Conan Dolye’s justification for their legal shakedown is at best questionable and is based on a not-entirely settled point of copyright law. Allow me to explain.

As you probably know, the vast majority of the Holmes stories are old enough that they are no longer in copyright in the US. (The author died in 1930, so his entire body work is public domain everywhere but the US.) In the US you can legally download nearly any of the Holmes stories from sites like Project Gutenberg. If you wanted to, you could then format the stories as ebooks or bind them into a paper book and sell the stories. This is completely legal.

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