Supreme Court Closes Case on Sherlock Holmes Copyrights

Posted by on Nov 10, 2014

The Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving Sherlock Holmes copyrights, leaving almost all of the late author’s work within the public domain, i.e. they no longer have copyright protection. The case involved the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who originally created the famed characters, and Leslie S. Klinger, an author who wished to use Sherlock and other characters in a book about Doyle’s work.

Klinger previously co-edited an anthology about Doyle’s Sherlock stories and his publisher paid a $5,000.00 licensing fee to Doyle’s Estate for use of the characters. Because of the success of his first work, Klinger decided to write a sequel, but this time his new publisher did not obtain a license or pay any fee to the Estate. The Estate caught wind of Klinger’s plans, and instead of demanding money or threatening a copyright lawsuit, it warned that it would prevent distribution of the book.

Dates are imperative to fully understand the Estate’s argument. During his lifetime Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock from 1887 through 1927. Many of the copyrights have lapsed, but 10 of the final stories will have continued protection from 2018 up to 2022, depending on the original publishing date. The Estate argued that the Holmes and Dr. Watson characters continued to develop throughout the stories. Because these “dynamic” characters brought new elements to each subsequent work, the Estate reasoned that they should be afforded the same copyright protections as the later stories.

The Estate took its case to the Supreme Court after the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Klinger. Judge Posner was clear with the court’s decision writing that “[the court] cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration. When a story falls into the public domain, story elements—including characters covered by the expired copyright—become fair game for follow-on authors[.]” (Read the full Seventh Circuit opinion here)

Posner also took the opportunity to admonish the Estate for what is known as copyright trolling, which is threatening or filing suit if the alleged infringer doesn’t pay a licensing fee. Posner went so far as to call the Estate’s business practice of charging small licensing fees based on bogus copyright arguments a form of extortion.

In Supreme Court-like fashion, the justices did not issue any reasons as to why it denied the Estate’s writ of certiorari.