Monday, June 16, 2014

Elementary Copyright

In The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes declares "I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection."  For at least today, June 16, 2014, Judge Richard Posner (United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) is the the last and highest court of appeal in copyright term for Sherlock Holmes.  Judge Posner, writing for a unanimous panel in Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, set most of the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about his famous detective free from further encumbrance by copyright.

In this case, Conan Doyle estate argued that
copyright on a “complex” character in a story, such as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson, whose full complexity is not revealed until a later story, remains under copyright until the later story falls into the public domain...[T]he fact that early stories in which Holmes or Watson appeared are already in the public domain does not permit their less than fully “complexified” characters in the early stories to be copied even though the stories themselves are in the public domain.
Posner strongly disagreed, even going to far as to suggest that "the estate's appeal borders on the quixotic."  The result is that most of Sherlock Holmes' stories now sit firmly in the public domain, alongside Cervantes Saavedra's adjectivally-cited hero, Don Quixote, awaiting republication, derivation, and all manner of creative uses.  Meanwhile, the Conan Doyle estate is left with the realization that it has been tilting at literary windmills.