The estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, owners of the rights to the original Sherlock Holmes novels, threatened to sue author Leslie Klinger if he didn’t obtain a license to publish “In the Company of Sherlock,” an anthology based on the characters Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson. In response, Klinger sued the estate, seeking a declaratory judgment that the copyright to the Sherlock Holmes characters had expired, placing them in the public domain. The trial court found in favor of Klinger, and the Doyle estate appealed the decision.
In its appeal, the estate argued that although the copyright on all but ten of the Sherlock Holmes novels had expired, the copyright on the characters themselves had not expired because they were “round” rather than “flat” characters. In other words, since the complexity of the “round” characters was not fully revealed until the characters evolved in Doyle’s later novels, Sherlock and Watson should remain protected by copyright until the later novels became public domain.
The Court of Appeals rejected the estate’s novel argument, finding no basis under either the Copyright Act or the case law to extend the copyright protection of the Sherlock Holmes characters past their original date of expiration. The Court noted that although Doyle had clearly added additional, distinctive features to his characters in his later novels, these alterations did not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters. The case is Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., accessible here.