Can the editor of a collection of stories based on the Sherlock Holmes characters and written by modern authors publish and distribute the collection without infringing the copyrights on the 10 Sherlock Holmes stories that are still protected by copyright? Yes, ruled the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, as long as the collection is based on the 56 stories and 4 novels that are in the public domain and not on the 10 stories that are still protected by copyright. Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate can’t leverage the copyrights of the 10 protected stories to claim copyright protection for the other 56 stories and 4 novels.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories between 1887 and 1927. The Copyright Act of 1976 protects works that were created from 1923 to the present. The 56 stories and 4 novels written by Doyle before 1923 are in the public domain. A public domain work is a work that is not protected by copyright. Public domain works belong to the public and anyone can use them without permission and, therefore, without infringing the rights of the most recent copyright owner. Leslie Klinger planned to publish a collection of stories created by modern authors and based on the Sherlock Holmes characters. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., heard of the plan and threatened to prevent distribution of the book. Klinger brought a declaratory judgment action against the estate, asking the court to declare that he can use the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels that are no longer protected by copyright. The district court ruled in Klinger’s favor and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.