“It’s elementary my dear Watson, Sherlock Holmes might still have copyright protection.” Not precisely the definitive answer one expects from Sherlock’s reasoning of all things – even the intricacies of copyright law.
The recent lawsuit filed against the estate of Sir Author Conan Doyle might bring out heirs of other great works created in the late 1800′s and early 20th century to see just how long copyright protection can be stretched.
The character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in publication in 1887 and was featured in four novels and 56 short stories spanning until 1927. According to US Copyright Law, the works written and published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. That means the characters, story lines and plots are free for use. The Estate asserts the works between 1923 and 1927 are infringed by the book In the Company of Sherlock Holmes scheduled for publication by Random House. In order to head-off an infringement suit, author/editor Leslie Klinger filed a declaratory judgment action asking the Judge to find the copyright on certain works featuring Sherlock Holmes and certain elements of the stories has expired.
The Complaint filed does a great job laying out the facts regarding when certain elements were first used in the Sherlock Holmes stories and why those elements are in the public domain.
Also visit the Conan Doyle Estate website to see which Sherlock Holmes projects have been “licensed” or “authorized.”
On another interesting note, the Conan Doyle Estate Limited has been busy filing trademark applications for the brand SHERLOCK HOLMES. In 2010 the estate filed six intent to use trademark application featuring the name SHERLOCK HOLMES. Based on US Patent and Trademark office filings, none of these trademarks are currently in use by the Estate. The image above of Holmes with the Pipe is a registered trademark of the The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company. According to the Conan Doyle Estate Website, the Estate is pursuing cancellation of this trademark registration.