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Copyright in Sherlock Holmes? It's a Mystery!

Here's a treat for those who love Sherlock Holmes (and who doesn't?): Back on Valentine's Day, an expert on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character filed suit in Illinois federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that all copyrights in the character, his sidekick Mr. Watson, and any other characters or character traits that appeared in any of the works published in the United States before January 1, 1923 have expired and enjoining the Doyle estate from intefering with the upcoming publication of a book of new and original stories based on those characters.

According to an article from the Hollywood Reporter about the lawsuit, Doyle's heirs, under the aegis of a company called Conan Doyle Estate Ltd, are objecting to the new book and insisting that a license agreement be procured under threat of an infringement claim. Apparently, although the copyright to all of Doyle's works expired in the UK in 1980 (see ¶ 18 of the complaint), the estate contends that copyright in the character Sherlock Holmes remains in effect in the US until 2023! That would be some feat for a character first introduced in 1887!

Also working against the estate is a 2004 New York federal court opinion that, in dicta at least, determined that only nine works of Doyle's retained copyright protection under US law.

But wait! The recently-filed complaint concedes that TEN Doyle works (or at least any original aspects of those works) are still protected by US copyright laws! Is it nine? Is it ten? Is it all 60? Considering how unnecessarily convoluted, confusing, and restrictive the current US copyright laws are (thanks a lot, Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act!), I wonder if even Sherlock Holmes could definitively solve this mystery. The game is afoot!

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