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.