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Sherlock: A Man of the People

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 30, 2013

Are you a fan of the shows “Sherlock” and “Elementary,” two current entries in the ever-growing corpus of Sherlock Holmes stories? Well, lucky you. You may be seeing and reading even more Holmes-inspired tales in the future. A U.S. federal judge has ruled over the weekend that the characters of Holmes and Watson are in the public domain – meaning that you can publish your fan fiction, and producers can roll their cameras, without having to pay licensing fees to the heirs of the long-dead Arthur Conan Doyle.

Until now – well, even after now, because they’re certain to appeal – the firm of Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. has claimed full copyright on all things Holmes-related, even though some 50 of the early Holmes stories have long passed the expiration of copyright. Their claim is based on the theory that because the last of the Holmes stories remain under copyright, the very characters of Holmes and Watson are copyrighted, no matter how old the stories in which they appeared.

But Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, has ruled that the characters themselves, together with any “facts” about them appearing in stories published before 1923, are in the public domain. Stories published after 1 January 1923, together with any “facts” concerning the characters that were revealed for the first time in those later stories, remain copyrighted.

The Mormon connection? None, that I know of, although I’m sure we could find one if we wanted to put the effort into it.

I support copyrights, within reason. When you’ve been plagiarized, or when your creative work has been republished without your permission even with your name attached, you quickly realize just how much you do support copyrights. But copyright needs to expire in a reasonable time, so that the human intellectual output can become the free heritage of all humankind. Don’t ask me to defend that with a carefully reasoned argument, or even to define what “reasonable” means — this is my emotional reaction, and I leave the philosophy to others.

I do know unreasonable when I see it, though. Whatever the reasonable limit is, a century past an author’s death, decades past the deaths of any dependents, decades during which ideas and characters have entered the public imagination and their fictional habits and words have become proverbial, is unreasonable. Copyright was intended to encourage creative output by protecting the creator’s interests for a limited time … but extending Conan Doyle’s interests, or the interests of his corporate heirs, isn’t going to result in any more creative output by Conan Doyle. Not on this side of the veil, anyway.

The most notorious example of unreasonable copyright claims, coupled with the financial power to meet all challenges, belongs to the Walt Disney Company. Disney become completely identified with efforts to extend copyright, even to the point of reviving expired copyrights, even to the point of attempting to claim copyright until “forever minus one day” – to avoid violating the U.S. Constitutional granting of copyright “for limited times. Disney has been unrelenting in its pursuit of copyright violations and its crushing of opposition.

The Mormon connection? None, that I know of.

Fortunately for me, I don’t deal in Disney material.

I just post out-of-copyright advertisements from old Mormon magazines.

Like this one.



15 Comments »

  1. Here’s a Mormon connection for you: The first Sherlock Holmes was the execrable “A Study In Scarlet” which featured just about all of the anti-Mormon rot the papers in English could provide.

    Since it’s now out of copyright (should the ruling stick and I’m with you in thinking that it should) someone can now legally publish a re-worked version. After all, according to Doyle’s daughter, he later wished he hadn’t written it like that.

    Well, I’ll see you all in a few months. Looks like I have a new project!

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — December 30, 2013 @ 7:48 am

  2. Another notorious instance is the evidently fraudulent copyright to the song “Happy Birthday.” The attempt to overturn that copyright claim is currently making its way through the courts.

    And . . . there’s a word that’s been coined by a Brooklyn professor for claiming copyright when it doesn’t actually exist: Copyfraud. (Love this stuff! Is it too late in life to go back to law school?) (Don’t bother answering that! I’m kidding!!)

    Comment by Amy T — December 30, 2013 @ 8:18 am

  3. So I guess the photographs of spirits that he showed in the Tabernacle in May 1923 are still under copyright. Dang.

    http://utahcommhistory.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/sir-arthur-conan-doyle%E2%80%99s-lecture-in-the-salt-lake-tabernacle-on-may-11-1923/

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 30, 2013 @ 8:24 am

  4. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a “cease and desist” letter in the files of that Church magazine–and in the files of the Utah Gas & Coke Company–from the Disney Company. Unless, of course, this was published before they decided what a gold mine they had found in Mickey Mouse.

    One irony about the copyright laws: as the laws have become stricter (and the period of copyright protection has been extended beyond all reason–as you suggest, Ardis, it’s unlikely that Conan Doyle will produce any more Holmes stories in the 69th year after his death), infringing copyrights has become easier than ever. One scanner and an internet connection, and an article in print can be sent around the world in a few minutes. If the copyrighted material is already in electronic form, reduce that time to a few seconds.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 30, 2013 @ 8:24 am

  5. Well, for a Mormon connection, there’s how the LDS Church goes about claiming and protecting its copyrights. I find the shift to Intellectual Reserve Inc. irritating, for instance, such as when I sing a hymn in a worship service that is marked as under copyright to that entity.

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 30, 2013 @ 9:02 am

  6. “‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,’ ‘Liahona,’ ‘Book of Mormon,’ and ‘Mormon’ are trademarks of Intellectual Reserve, Inc.”

    http://www.lds.org/legal/terms

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 30, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  7. Not sure why you should find that irritating, John — because the material is copyrighted? because you don’t like the name of the holding company?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 30, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  8. Copyright is largely about money. Not surprisingly, the move to extend copyright protection typically results from authors’ estates and large corporate owners who want to continue to benefit financially. I suppose some of this is understandable. Though an author’s life plus 70 years (right?) seems excessive. Thanks goodness for fair use provisions and other exceptions.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 30, 2013 @ 11:36 am

  9. Yes, Gary, for newly copyrighted works, it lasts for the author’s life plus 70 years. For older works still under copyright when the new law was enacted, there were some complicated formulas for determining the remaining life of the copyright.

    I’m not sure what John finds irritating either. Before the General Counsel’s office of the Church began trying to put some order into property ownership, there were a bunch of different options: for real property, most was owned by “Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church etc., etc.” but some was owned by “Corporation of the President etc.” That included churches and temples and welfare projects and investment properties. And I don’t know how the copyright and trademarks were held. To try to bring order to a disorderly mess, two new corporations were formed, Property Reserve, Inc., and Intellectual Reserve, Inc., and the investment properties and the “intellectual property” (trademarks, copyrights, patents (?)) were transferred, respectively, to those two entities.

    I would have chosen different names, but the owner of the corporation gets to choose–and I’m not the owner.

    I would expect the Church to take advantage of the copyright laws to the fullest extent if doing so is in the interest of furthering the Church’s mission. But there is very broad latitude in copying some things–the hymnbook, especially. They don’t want to turn all the choir directors of the church into copyright infringers–they’ll leave them to do that on their own with music they buy from other publishers!

    Comment by Mark B. — December 30, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  10. And, by the way, I would change one word in your first line, Gary. Delete “largely” and insert “all”.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 30, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  11. One additional point: trademarks do last forever, so long as the entity which established the trademark continues to use the mark “in commerce” and does not abandon the mark or allow it to be lost (like the Otis Elevator Company did with “escalator” for example).

    Comment by Mark B. — December 30, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  12. I’m relieved not to have heard from the Disney Juggernaut concerning the linked image. Not yet, anyway.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 30, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  13. Ardis, if Disney doesn’t know yet, the NSA does!

    Comment by kevinf — December 30, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

  14. I think I’m more afraid of the Mouse, kevinf, than the rats.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 30, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

  15. Good one! I liked the big reveal. Who knew a post on copyrights could be so dramatic?

    Comment by David Y. — December 30, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

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