Sherlock Holmes and the mysterious copyright argument

The US Supreme Court has refused leave for the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd to appeal the Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit decision affirming that most of the Sherlock Holmes stories have lapsed into the public domain in the United States.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and characters have been subject to a tangle of copyright disputes since the author died in 1930.  In the UK copyright protection extends 70 years after death therefore the copyright protection on Doyle’s works expired in 2000.  However, in the US 10 of his 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories continue to enjoy copyright protection due to copyright extensions obtained by Doyle’s great nieces and nephews.

The game was once more afoot when editor and media lawyer Leslie S. Klinger attempted to publish a new book containing Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson without obtaining a license from the estate and paying a fee.

It was previously ruled by the Seventh Circuit Court that Mr Klinger’s book did not use any elements from the 10 stories still under copyright protection.   However, the Doyle estate attempted a novel argument that the great detective is a complex character who was effectively incomplete until the author’s final story was published in the US, leaving the entire body of work protected by copyright.  This argument was rejected by the Court as it would have meant that the estate would receive the benefit of 135 years of copyright protection.

Despite this set back, the Doyle estate have decided that they have not yet eliminated the impossible and have announced that they intend to petition the Supreme Court for review of the decision itself.

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