Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » Supreme Court Won’t Hear Dispute Over Sherlock Holmes

Supreme Court Won’t Hear Dispute Over Sherlock Holmes

4 November 2014

From the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court won’t take up a copyright dispute over the right to depict Sherlock Holmes in a new anthology of stories.

The justices on Monday declined to hear an appeal from heirs of legendary writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who say anyone portraying characters from the popular detective series must seek permission or pay a licensing fee.

A U.S. district court ruled that copyrights had expired on all Sherlock novels and stories published before 1923, but not on the final 10 stories published after that. The lower court said author Leslie Klinger could use characters from pre-1923 works and a federal appeals court agreed.

Link to the rest at the Associated Press

Copyright/Intellectual Property

47 Comments to “Supreme Court Won’t Hear Dispute Over Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930. It’s time for his ancestors to stop profiting from his works.

    • Ah, you are referring to the little known “Sherlock Holmes and the Time Machine” story. Nice reference. 😉

      In all seriousness, that sounds a little like sour grapes. How about, “It’s time for society to receive the benefits for which it contracted with Doyle in exchange for the legal monopoly it granted him.” 🙂 It’s not about punishing his rent-seeking heirs. It’s about our decision, collectively, that we’ll give you (limited) inducements to produce things that benefit us all in exchange for you sharing them with the rest of us.

      • That wasn’t really my point. I would like to see one of Doyles become a writer… but they had no incentive to do so BECAUSE they were collecting on Sherlock Holmes. Should have added that in to my earlier comment.

        • That goes past sour grapes and starts to sound a little exploitative. “Let’s make their lives harder so we can benefit from their theoretical genetic talent – and if it turns out they don’t have any, oh well.”

          If people want to create, they’ll create. If they don’t, they won’t. (See Isaac Asimov’s story “Profession” for a really drawn-out exploration of this idea.)

          • Not what I was saying. We can just agree to disagree at this point.

            • Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’re saying is that the original owner of the copyright, Sir Arthur, died in 1930, his works should have entered public domain in the US in 2000 in accordance with US copyright law. You’re saying that there is no reason copyright law should apply differently to Doyle – or for that matter Disney – than to anyone else.

              My works will enter public domain in the US seventy years after my death. Why not his?

              • The issue being litigated wasn’t the stories but the ability to write new stories around Holmes, Watson, and other characters and elements mentioned in the PD stories. The estate argued that the characters (and elements) would not enter the PD until the copyright expires on the last Holmes story published.

                The courts all disagreed with that interpretation.

                • Stipulating, however, that elements of the stories that were published after 1923 (concerning characters that appeared only there and, for example, Watson’s rugby background)) are still under copyright.

                • With the brilliantly simple logic that if the new material wasn’t distinguishable enough from the old material for the copyright on it not to require protection of the old material, it wasn’t original enough to be entitled to a separate copyright.

      • I’ve always thought culture in general would be better if public domain started pretty much upon the death of the creator.

        • That sounds like a great way to introduce so many disincentives and misincentives it would take a boring ol’ law review article to even catalog them.

          Fixed terms would be great. I’m all for that. I don’t know that the life of the author has any bearing on it at all, and I don’t like the system we have now much for that very reason. But to me, your idea basically takes the bad part of the current system and makes it the entire new system. If we let heirs benefit from people building buildings, I don’t see why we shouldn’t let them benefit from people building whole worlds.

        • Wouldn’t copyright expiration on the death of an author inadvertently put a target on his back? “Megabucks Entertainment wants to do its own version of author X’s story; so sad that he tripped and fell into the river.”

          Plus, what about Mrs. X and all the little Xs that Author leaves behind?

          • Raising the question, “If I freeze my head, do I retain copyright over my works?”

          • There was a proposal back in the 19th century for copyright to last for the life of the author or some number of years, whichever was longer. That way, if an author had a hit near the end of his life (or fell into a river), his heirs would get some benefit from it, but if he had a hit when he was young and lived for a long time after that, his heirs couldn’t keep profiting from great-granddaddy’s one stroke of luck.

            • I favor that approach myself.
              You don’t want to leave widows and orphans unduly exposed so something like life or fifty years would be a fair balance even if it leads to a few murders here and there. 😉

            • I also could get behind that approach.

        • “I’ve always thought culture in general would be better if public domain started pretty much upon the death of the creator.”

          Oh great. So instead of fans dying to get their hands on the newest novel from so and so…you’ll have someone killing to set a beautiful work free.

          If you have a million fans, it’d be really easy for one of them to be a total nut job.

          Not to mention it might be cheaper for Hollywood to have someone knifed in a dark alley(It looked like a mugging, I swear!), than it is to pay them to make a movie from their life’s work.

          Can we please NOT encourage an untimely end to productive and well read writers please? Please?!

    • I don’t think Doyle’s ancestors have ever made a penny off his works. His *descendants*, on the other hand…

  2. How long will Disney own Mickey Mouse?

    • They’ll own the trademark as long as they continue to use it. The copyright is almost beside the point by now.

      • Ditto with other prominent characters.

        Time Warner long ago decided to subtly alter their characters every decade or two to devalue the original versions.
        Best example is Superman, that not only looks nothing like the original, but is also very different from even recent versions.

        • Although I note with distaste that the latest version, like all other recent superheroes, appears to be wearing Kevlar.

          • No “appear” about it: it is officially body armor across the board.
            It started with WW during the Perez reboot in the 80’s (“It’s not a swimsuit, it’s hoplite-style armor”) and in recent years costumes with prominent seams became a fad but after the “New 52” Wildstorming of the DCU they pretty much decreed that all the heroes (and most villains) are wearing body armor. Way too busy in most cases.
            No more jokes about tights, lycra, or wearing underwear on the outside, though.

            They are also overdoing it on the high collar thing. Give it a couple years and a new fad will take over.

            • Armor is one thing, but they all appear to be wearing woven aramid fiber-based material. Because it looks all edgy and high-tech.

              Krypton’s science is so advanced that assuming they’d even bother with physical armor, they could probably make lovely comfortable monomolecular fabric thin and soft as silk that could stop a depleted uranium dart. Why do all the clothes have to look like carbon-fiber hood material?

              Lack of Imagination, that’s why.

    • Well,once they buy their next round of Congresscritters we can expect to add another 20 years. Then another 20 years and another, and another……

  3. I think we’ll probably go another 10 years before we end up with a decent copyright law somewhere that will address three things:

    a. The model is no longer (if it ever was) of the starving artist who will toil away until their death, with nary a success, who dies leaving (mainly) his family destitute and where his “capital” accumulation is tied up in his writings;

    b. Copyright and licensing go hand in hand, and licensing should become more standardized (five year contracts, non-renewable by default, all rights revert, etc.) to guarantee that something doesn’t go “out of print” with no royalties being earned yet the clock ticking away on earning potential; and,

    c. A set life for paper and print, for all ongoing series that ties back to the date of death of the author, not the date of publication — you wrote, you own it for your life + x number of years.

    Personally, I’d even go farther and say any contracts for licensing end at death of author, if heirs so desire.


    • There is no reason for the wealthy corporations who bribe congressmen to favour such reform, so it will not happen any time soon.

  4. A copyright that can last well over 125 years since the work was written does seem a little excessive. Assume that the work was written when the writer was 25 and he/she lived until age 80; that gives 55 + 70 = 125 years of copyright. It seems weird that heirs that never even met the person should benefit from a work that could have been written 125 years earlier.

    • There have been quite a few books written by teenagers recently and with trending medical advances, a copyright span of 150-160 years isn’t out of the question.

    • That applies to Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. Christie died in 1976. Her copyright doesn’t run out until 2046, so her first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” is under copyright for 126 years (except in a good part of the world; that’s because it was published first in the U.S., so it is treated as a U.S.-published book for copyright).

    • “It seems weird that heirs that never even met the person should benefit from a work that could have been written 125 years earlier.”

      Why should it be weird? The current Ford family never met the man who founded their company. Property of all kinds gets passed down through the generations. Why should copyrights be any different?

      • Yes but Ford automotive didn’t stop all production when he died. The entire company is not still selling the work and creation of a single individual. They are continuing to pay people to design new vehicles and revise old designs. They are paying for supplies and manufacturing. Etc…

        To compare Ford(a manufacturer) to a Copyrighted work(a book) just seems crazy to me. One is still in active production of new material, thus is still generating (hopefully) income for their owners. The other is a single thing and once done is granted a window to reap rewards for the task.

        I should also point out it was not “Doyle LLC” that wrote and had published the books, but a specific person. Also as is note worthy, I’m not sure companies can actually be counted as having written and copyrighted something. ~Pssst~ PG? Can a company bypass the copyright catch 22, under a “Work for hire”? Or do I just need more caffeine and less ramble?

        • Companies can own copyright, and can be considered as the creator of a work under copyright law. My contract of employment for my day job says that I agree to assign the copyright in anything that’s copyrightable that I write as part of my job to the company.

          At the end of every movie I’ve seen in the last [mumble] years is a notice to the effect that “For the purposes of [name of country] copyright, [name of movie studio] was the [creator? author? owner?] of this movie at the time of its creation” – basically saying that the studio, not an individual, owns the copyright, and did so from the moment the movie came into existence.

          Because companies are potentially immortal, the copyright in any work where a company is considered the creator lasts a fixed amount of time, either from the work’s creation or its first publication.

      • There is a difference. When someone dies, their heirs can inherit their property, but they can no longer benefit directly from the deceased efforts. They must now make efforts to sustain or grow that fortune themselves. In the case of copyright, the heirs do not have to make any efforts of their own, for the life of the copyright.

        Personally, I am not a great fan of large inheritances anyway. I think they stifle innovation in general and act as a barrier to rewards being based on personal merit. I think people should work for their position in life, not benefit from some distant ancestor’s efforts. Whether that makes me a true socialist or a true capitalist is a matter of opinion.

        • Most of the “self-made” billionaires tend to believe in leaving their kids “enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing” and put most of their accumulated wealth into charity to keep it away from government.
          Seems reasonable enough.
          (Of course it all depends on how you define “enough”.)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.