The Case of the Copyright Expiration Date
In February Leslie Klinger, a Los Angeles attorney, filed a lawsuit against the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- the creator and author of a series of fictional works featuring legendary investigator and crime-solver Sherlock Holmes. According to the Complaint, filed in a federal court in Illinois (the location of the estate’s US licensing agent), Mr Klinger is the author of numerous books and articles relating to the “Canon of Sherlock Holmes, a phrase that refers to the four (4) novels and fifty-six (56) stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes and other related characters and story elements”. Mr Klinger’s Complaint raises copyright law questions that could easily be the subject of a Sherlock Holmes caper.
US copyright law, applied to the works of Sir Conan Doyle, creates a scenario whereby most of the works have entered the public domain, while only ten stories that were published after January 1, 1923 remain under copyright protection until 2023, at the latest. For years, the Conan Doyle Estate has demanded and collected licensing fees from authors who created works drawing from or based on the Sherlock Holmes character or other elements from the world of Sherlock Holmes. According to this March 6 article in the New York Times, Mr Klinger himself paid a licensing fee to the Conan Doyle Estate in connection with a 2011 publication (the Complaint asserts that his then-publisher, Random House, agreed to pay the licensing fee despite his objection).
But Mr Klinger’s view, and the view of other, sympathetic authors who have created new stories based on elements from the public domain works of Sir Conan Doyle, is that these licensing fees are not necessary, and the Conan Doyle Estate should not be allowed to threaten them with lawsuits to extract licensing fees. The Complaint asserts that only new, original elements first published in the stories that remain under copyright protection are still protectable; copyright no longer protects, however, any elements that had already been published in earlier Sherlock Holmes works, so all such elements are now in the public domain.
For its part, the Conan Doyle Estate claims that all elements of the Canon of Sherlock Holmes remain protected by copyright because, “Holmes is a unified literary character that wasn’t completely developed until the author laid down his pen.” In other words, the character of Sherlock Holmes and all related copyright elements remain protected until 2023, the date upon which the final story published by Sir Conan Doyle enters the public domain.
Can copyright of all works in a series legitimately be extended until the natural expiration of the copyright term for the final work in the series? The answer to this question could have a broad impact on the status of copyrights held by authors who create series of works over many years. I’m not aware of any prior precedental judgments that accept such an outcome, but if any readers know of other cases on this point, please let us know in the comments to this post.
|Some questions in copyright |
law are not so elementary,
are they Watson?
To some extent, trade marks derived from elements of such works could help protect the rights holder’s interests in the works. Indeed, the Conan Doyle Estate also asserts trade mark rights in the word mark Sherlock Holmes and the silhouette image of a pipe-smoking Sherlock. Klinger reportedly intends to challenge the validity and enforceability of the estate’s purported trade mark rights in connection with demanding licensing fees (though he has not done so in the current copyright-related Complaint). A Katpost in 2010 generated quite a debate on the validity in the UK of a trade mark that arises from a copyright work that falls into the public domain. Perhaps this question will soon be asked and answered under US law.
On the other hand, even if the estate’s copyrights are found to have expired, it still retains its reputation as a foremost expert on all things Sherlock Holmes. Being an authorized licensee of a respected and prominent stakeholder, such as the Conan Doyle Estate, often comes with favorable benefits, including marketing and advertising support from the licensor and, in the case of the Conan Doyle Estate, permission to use the estate’s official licensee seal on book covers or product packaging. This notion holds equally true in uses that may be considered fair use; though fair use is permitted under copyright law, in some situations it still may be worth the cost of a licence fee to secure authorization, if possible and appropriate, from the rights holder of the underlying elements. The ROI on the licence benefits may exceed the cost of the licence fee – and prevent costly litigation.