As I noted in yesterday’s post, under US copyright law we sometimes get early works by long-lived authors in our public domain earlier than most other countries do. But we also often have to wait longer for authors’ late works. Today I consider the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his most famous creation, the ingenious detective Sherlock Holmes.
Like some of the other authors I’ve mentioned to date, Sir Arthur had a long writing career, and published writings on a variety of subjects. He wrote in support of British actions in the South African War (commonly cited as the reason for the knighthood awarded to him in 1902). Late in his career, he also wrote surprisingly credulously on alleged visitations of fairies, based on suspiciously composed photographs eventually admitted by their creators to be fakes. Today, though, he’s best known for Holmes, who made his debut in A Study in Scarlet (1887), and appeared in a wildly popular series of stories that ran until the author got tired of him and killed him off in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” (1893).
It didn’t stick, though. Public demand for more Holmes stories led the author to publish another Holmes novel in 1901 (but set before his plunge over the Reichenbach Falls), The Hound of the Baskervilles. By 1903, Conan Doyle gave in and brought Holmes back to life in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, one of the more famous early examples of retroactive continuity now common in comics and other long-running entertainment series. Conan Doyle would continue to publish Holmes stories, at a somewhat slower pace than before, through 1927, the same year the last ones were collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle died in 1930, so his published works entered the public domain in the UK and many other countries in 1981, after 50 years had passed from his death. In 2001, they entered the public domain under “life + 70 years” regimes (which the UK and many other countries had adopted in the interval). But while early Holmes stories have been in the public domain in the United States for a long time, his last stories are still under copyright here. Their copyright terms start with their first publication, though, and the last stories were published in magazines before they were published in the Case-Book. In particular, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” was published in the March 1923 issues of both the Strand Magazine and Hearst’s International. The author’s children renewed the copyright to the story in 1950, and copyrights were also routinely renewed for Hearst’s issues. US copyrights for the story, and for the other content in the 1923 issues of Hearst’s, will end 28 days from today.
The character of Sherlock Holmes was well-established in his early stories, and many Holmes fans consider the later Case-Book stories relatively minor. That hasn’t stopped the Conan Doyle estate from claiming proprietary rights over Holmes stories generally, though, based on its US copyrights to the last few stories. When the estate tried to block an anthology of new Holmes stories that Leslie Klinger planned to publish, unless he got permission and paid a fee, Klinger sued for a declaratory judgment that he did not need any such permission. In 2014, the 7th Circuit agreed with him, noting that Klinger was not proposing to reuse elements introduced in the late stories, and that the “the alterations [in those stories] do not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters”. In a later ruling, the same court awarded Klinger attorney’s fees from the estate, calling their practices “a form of extortion” and saying “It’s time the estate, in its own self-interest, changed its business model”.
A more detailed legal analysis of the case can be found in Jessica L. Malekos Smith’s article “Sherlock Holmes & the Case of the Contested Copyright” (2016). That article refers to the initial ruling I’ve linked above under the citation “755 F.3d 496”. That notation, cryptic as it may appear to laypeople, refers to a commonly cited legal source that has had its own copyright controversies, and that also includes material that will soon be added to the public domain. I’ll talk about it more in tomorrow’s calendar entry.