Are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson still under a legal cloak (or cape, if you will) of copyright law? The Supreme Court may have to solve that mystery, to decide a new legal plea filed Tuesday by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish creator of that fictional detective and his far less colorful companion.
The estate has been attempting to block a California lawyer and Holmes fancier, Leslie S. Klinger, from publishing a new book about the two characters unless he is willing to get a license from the estate and pay a fee. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the estate’s copyright claim, calling it “quixotic.”
. . . .
At this point, the Doyle estate is only seeking a delay of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, until it can file a petition for review of the decision itself. The Seventh Circuit refused a stay on July 9. But to deal with the application, the Court will have to decide whether the legal claim has any chance of ultimately succeeding and decide who might be hurt if a stay is, or is not, issued..
Doyle has been dead for eighty-four years, but because of extensions of copyright terms, ten of his fifty-six short stories continue to be protected from copying.
. . . .
The Doyle estate, though, is pressing a quite unusual copyright theory. It contends that, since Doyle continued to develop the characters of Holmes and Watson throughout all of the stories, the characters themselves cannot be copied even for what Doyle wrote about them in the works that are now part of the public domain and thus ordinarily would be fair game for use by others.
. . . .
After the estate said that it would use its connections with Amazon.com and others to see that the new book did not get distributed, and added that it might sue for copyright violation, Klinger sued the estate in federal court to get the copyright issue settled.
In its ruling in mid-June, the Seventh Circuit found that nothing in the planned new volume will touch upon what Doyle wrote about his characters in the final ten stories that remain protected. With its focus on those characters in the earlier, and no longer protected works, the new volume did not violate any of the estate’s copyrights, the court of appeals decided.
. . . .
That is the ruling that the estate is planning to appeal to the Supreme Court. Its main argument is that, if other authors may exploit the Holmes and Dr. Watson characters, that “will stifle the estate’s ability to manage the Sherlock Holmes character’s further promotion and development through licensing agreements at a time when Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows are more popular than ever.”