Conan Doyle Estate Can’t Protect Public Domain Sherlock Holmes Characters

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.

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Domain Tools Seeks Declaratory Relief in Copyright and Trademark Dispute

This is a summary of the allegations in Domain Tools’ complaintDomain Tools, LLC is a King County-based company offering online domain name research and monitoring services.  Domain Tools’ services include domain name research, registration research, WHOIS information, historical WHOIS information and historical static screenshots of the home pages of websites that have been associated with specific domain names.  WHOIS information is the contact information that everyone who registers a domain name must provide, as per ICANN requirements.  ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and is the entity that controls the domain name system. 

The historical screenshots provided by Domain Tools are not interactive and do not substitute for live websites.  Domain Tools believes that by providing access to historical information about the Internet, it provides a service that benefits the public.  The DOMAINTOOLS trademark is registered on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Principal Register, which means that it is a distinctive trademark.  Domain Tools, LLC is the exclusive licensee of the mark. 

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