The late Arthur Conan Doyle is the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and characters. His estate recently sued several movie production companies, including Miramax, of the movie “Mr. Holmes” and the writer of the book that it was based upon, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” for copyright and trademark infringement. “Mr. Holmes” is set to be released later this summer and features Sherlock Holmes during the later portions of his life and retirement. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico under case number 15-cv-432.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has previously ruled that many of the copyrights in the Sherlock Holmes characters and/or stories have expired. See, Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., 755 F.3d 496 (7th Cir. 2014). There have been 56 stories and 4 novels relating to Sherlock Holmes published by Mr. Doyle, the first of which in 1887 and last in 1927. Id. at 497. The final 10 stories were published between 1923 and 1927. Id. The Seventh Circuit found that copyright protection for all stories published prior to 1923 have expired, but that copyright protection on the final 10 stories published between 1923 and 1927 will not expire until 95 years after the date of original publication. Id. The copyright in these works have passed to Mr. Doyle’s estate.
The recent lawsuit relating to the “Mr. Holmes” movie alleges infringement on the copyrights for the works published during the time period of 1923-1927, which allegedly tell more about Sherlock Holmes’ retirement and later years. Some of the interesting questions that arise from this lawsuit are whether New Mexico is the proper venue for the dispute, whether the “Mr. Holmes” movie and underlying book take protected elements of plot, setting, and character from the allegedly copyrighted Sherlock Holmes works, what elements of the allegedly copyrighted Sherlock Holmes works are protectable, and whether the Defendants have a fair use defense to the trademark infringement claims.
Copyright protection does not last forever and is only a limited monopoly. Once copyright protection expires on a work, the work is said to become “part of the public domain and can be copied and sold without need to obtain a license from the holder of the expired copyright.” See, Klinger, 755 F.3d at 497. The rules regarding copyright duration are detailed and complicated and can affect whether a license is required to use a certain work. Thus, these determinations are best made after contacting a licensed attorney.