U.S. Federal Judge Says Sherlock Holmes and Pre-1923 Elements of that Storyworld are in the Public Domain, But Elements Added after 1922...?

The video above is an interview with author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Sherlock Holmes - discussing the genesis of that iconic detective (the Sherlock Holmes discussion begins at around the 1:15 mark). Now, 83 years after Sir Arthur died, a federal judge has ruled on whether Sir Arthur's estate can still charge a license fee when a new Sherlock Holmes work (like a movie or TV show) is created.

As reported in the December 27th, 2013 New York Times, federal judge Ruben Castillo has ruled that Sherlock Holmes, and all the elements of 50 Holmes works published before Jan. 1, 1923, are (in the words of the NY Times) "no longer covered by United States copyright law, and can therefore be freely used by others without paying any licensing fee to the writer’s estate."

The declaratory judgment written by Chief Judge Ruben Castillo makes fascinating reading... distinguishing the Sherlock Holmes story elements that were published before 1923 and are therefore "free for public use because the stories in which the elements were first introduced have entered the public domain" from the post-1922 Sherlock Holmes elements that may still be protected under U.S. copyright law.

That's was this case was all about: Would the courts protect the Sherlock Holmes materials that were published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after 1922 by allowing the Doyle estate to control the underlying characters and story elements that were published prior to 1923? 

Put another way: Could the holder of a copyright in a popular character that was created prior to 1923 extend the protection of copyright into perpetuity simply by adding new details to the canon?

After Judge Castillo's ruling, the only things that might still be under the exclusive control of the Doyle estate and protected in the Holmes canon is post-1922 unique expression - i.e., exact dialogue, characters (Watson's second wife), specific traits and particulars of new fictional events (Holmes' retirement from his detective agency) - that first appeared in the 10 post-1922 Sherlock Holmes stories. 

In other words, if you're thinking about writing your own Sherlock Holmes story now, steer clear of anything introduced for the first time in the 10 Holmes stories that were authored by Sir Arthur and published after 1922 - or anything anyone else has added to the canon post 1922. But everything from the pre-1923 stories is freely available without permission.

Thanks to Hoang Nga for the link.

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