Court Uses Art of Deduction to Liberate Sherlock Holmes

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes has fascinated audiences in Florida and around the world for more than a century, and his popularity only seems to grow as time goes on. With two movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and at least two Sherlock Holmes series on television in recent years, the detective shows every sign of living well into the 21st century.

Furthering that longevity, a federal judge recently ruled that the character of Sherlock Holmes belongs to the public domain. The ruling came in a case filed by a Sherlock Holmes scholar, who had compiled an annotated edition of the detective stories. The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which controls the author’s copyrights and other intellectual property had argued that it had the exclusive right to depictions of the fictional detective.

In its defense, the estate argued that even though the copyright has expired on the oldest Sherlock Holmes stories, the characters continued to develop over time, aging and acquiring new life experiences in later stories which are still protected under copyright law. Therefore, the estate argued, the characters themselves should be protected by copyright.

The court rejected that argument. The estate no longer has an exclusive right to characters such as Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, the court said. However, the court did agree that copyright law still protects some developments in the characters’ fictional lives, such as Watson’s second marriage, which appear in print only in stories that are still protected by copyright law.

The estate has indicated that it will continue to fight to protect its rights under trademark law.

Intellectual property is an incredibly complicated and somewhat esoteric area of the law, and yet it can be crucial to the financial health of the entertainment industry. All those in Florida’s entertainment industry need help from attorneys with experience in copyright, trademark and other aspects of intellectual property law.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, “Sherlock Holmes: Judge Declares Popular Detective in Public Domain,” Eriq Gardner, Dec. 27, 2013

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