Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain? Elementary My Dear Watson.

A federal judge recently ruled that Sherlock Holmes (and most of his story) belongs to the public. The legendary sleuth first made his appearance in 1887. Author Conan Doyle would go on to publish four novels and 56 stories about Holmes’ exploits until his death in 1930. All but 10 of those stories, notably, were printed before 1923. The judge, in applying U.S. Copyright law, used the 1923 year as the cut-off line for what is, and what isn’t, in the public domain when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. Anything before that year can be used by anyone. Stories after January 1, 1923, are still protected by copyright law, however.

What is the “Public Domain”?

Public domain is the simple concept that, after a certain amount of years, copyrighted work no longer enjoys protection. The public is free to use formerly copyrighted works in any way they choose and don’t have to pay an author, the author’s estate, or a copyright holder. It’s free! Federal law, however, has consistently shifted the goalposts for how long it takes a copyrighted work to enter the public domain.

The first U.S. Copyright Act in 1790 allowed a term of copyright for 14 years, and the author could renew that copyright for 14 more years. By 1909, the copyright term had doubled to 28 years with an option for a 28 year renewal of the original term. Thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, federal law now authorizes a copyright term that covers the author’s entire life, and then 70 more years after that. A young musician or writer, for example, who publishes work in 2013 when they’re 25, lives until they’re 85, would have that work copyrighted for 130 years (or until 2143).

Why is 1923 Important to U.S. Copyright Law and Public Domain?

Public domain Sherlock Holmes

“We’re in the public domain Holmes?”

January 1, 1923, is a date to know when it comes to copyright law. Works that authors published before this date are in the public domain and not protected by copyright. No exceptions. A complex web of laws and calculations, however, apply to works published after this date to determine whether there is still copyright protection. You can find specific details about those calculations here.

Copyright Law, Sherlock Holmes, and Public Domain.

In a nuanced decision, the federal judge held fast to this sticking point of January 1, 1923. He ruled that the parts of of Sherlock Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s story published before 1923 are in the public domain. Parts of that story published after that date, including Dr. Watson’s background as an athlete, Dr. Watson’s second wife, and Holmes’ retirement, are still protected by copyright law and owned by Doyle’s family.

The judge rejected arguments that the Sherlock Holmes’ literature was a single story-line that couldn’t be separated before and after 1923. In other words:

1. Doyle’s publication of Sherlock Holmes literature before 1923 does not make the entire story-line public domain (Sherlock Holmes publications after Jan. 1, 1923).

2. Likewise, Doyle’s publication of Sherlock Holmes literature after Jan. 1, 1923, does not make the entire story-line protected by copyright (Sherlock Holmes publications before 1923).

This case proves that public domain domain and the term of copyright are still important issues for authors, artists, musicians and other creative types. If you have any questions on this topic, feel free to ask.

Ari Good, JD LLM, a tax, aviation and entertainment lawyer, is the shareholder of Good Attorneys at Law, P.A. He graduated from the DePaul University College of Law in 1997 and obtained his L.L.M. in Taxation from the University of Florida.

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