The Supreme Court Monday affirmed the rights of creators to develop characters who live in public domain fiction. The decision could have repercussions for film and TV studios, publishing houses, the stage, and more.
The case surrounds a Southern California author, Leslie Klinger, who co-edited "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes," a new series of short stories about the detective. Klinger was threatened by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
While the estate holds legitimate copyright to the last 10 Holmes stories written by Doyle, the first 50 tales are in the public domain and are not protected by copyright.
Klinger won in the lower courts, and the Supreme Court Monday declined to hear the Doyle estate's appeal. That will mean Klinger's book can be released on schedule on November 11.
A portion of U.S Circuit Judge Richard Posner's ruling states:
We can imagine the Doyle estate being concerned that a modern author might write a story in which Sherlock Holmes was disparaged — perhaps by being depicted as a drug dealer. He was of course a cocaine user. or) , and that someone who read the story might be deterred from reading Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories because he would realize that he couldn't read them without puzzling confusedly over the "true" character of Sherlock Holmes. ... Anyway it appears that the Doyle estate is concerned not with specific alterations in the depiction of Holmes or Watson in Holmes - Watson stories written by authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle , but with any such story that is published without payment to the estate of a licensing fee.
The heirs of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle argue anyone portraying characters from the popular detective series must seek permission or pay a licensing fee, but Klinger says that only applies to major plot points of the books under protection — not to Holmes and Watson as characters, their iconic apartment at 221b Baker Street, or even minor plot points in the protected stories, like the fact that Watson used to play rugby.
Klinger says not only can creators now base stories on Doyle's creation, but other characters are fair game, too.
"Both Tarzan and John Carter of Mars ... I think Burroughs wrote stories that span that 1923 (copyright) date," he said. "I think Hercule Poirot falls under the same situation."