As a journalist and a writer, I care very much about protecting copyright laws.
A writer should not have his or her words hijacked into other works such as plays, TV series, etc., or published by another without his or her permission.
But how long should a copyright last? And when does a work, or a body of work, go into public domain? Do we pay Shakespeare’s heirs for his plays? If we did, then whoever his descendants are must be wealthy.
Which brings me a lawsuit recently been filed over licensing fees for the Sherlock Holmes works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
First, Sherlock Holmes continues to be popular. This isn’t anything new as it seems that Holmes’ game is afoot nearly every year with short stories, novels, and novellas.
Filmed versions of Sherlock are at the movies with Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective and Jude Law as John Watson. CBS’ Elementary has the odd pairing of Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. BBC’s Sherlock reboots the tales with Sherlock played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Watson, who, in the 21st century, blogs about their adventures.
Other shows such as CBS’ The Mentalist and A&E’s Psych are directly inspired by Sherlock’s powers of observation.
But now, more than 125 years, since the brilliant Sherlock came on the scene, some are wondering just how long those copyright laws must last.
Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of three wonderful volumes of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes and other books, has filed a civil complaint that states that “many licensing fees paid to the Arthur Conan Doyle estate have been unnecessary, since the main characters and elements of their story derived from materials published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by United States copyright law,” according to a New York Times story.
Klinger’s complaint, according to the New York Times, “stems from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of Holmes-related stories by various authors, edited by Mr. Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a successful mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife.”
Klinger’s suit doesn’t challenge the fact that “Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. was “the sole and exclusive owner” of the material that remains under copyright.”
Nor is he trying to interfere “with the estate’s legitimate rights,” according to the newspaper. But Klinger said in the New York Times that “the stories in the new collection avoided drawing on elements introduced in any of the 10 Holmes stories published after Jan. 1, 1923, which remain under copyright until 2023.”
On the website Free-Sherlock.com, Klinger said: “It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws. However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.”
More to the story is at the New York Times and at Free-Sherlock.
Now, this is just my opinion and no one else’s, but I think that Klinger has a point. Stories inspired by Sherlock are a vast difference from those that blatantly co-op a piece of work. What’s protection and what is greed?
Klinger’s work on Sherlock and the nearly 3,000-page Annotated volumes are more than just impressive; these three books show a scholar unmatched with a vast knowledge of his subject and an infinite attention to detail.
Those who have not read Laurie King’s wonderful series that began in 1994 with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, should do themselves a favor and order each of the 13 novels in this series. And start at the beginning. While King’s series pays homage to Sherlock and honor the character, King also deserves kudos for writing a series that both adults and young adults can savor. I would have loved a book such as The Beekeeper's Apprentice when I was 13 years old. Mary Russell would have been a kindred spirit for me.
It doesn’t matter how any of feel about this lawsuit—that’s for the courts to decide. Klinger and King have both brought renewed attention to Sherlock Holmes, showing that the Great Detective is timeless.