The Free Sherlock campaign

I don’t need to explain what this is. Most people will already have a pretty good idea and those who don’t can visit the website for details. I have no intention of going deeply into the arguments being voiced by both sides. There are plenty of others out there doing that already.

However, the argument wouldn't even be taking place if it were not for what appears to be the US’ unusual copyright laws.

To my mind, the common sense position is that an author’s entire body of work (published or not) should be either in copyright or not. The copyright period being x number of years following the author's death. 

In practice, the situation in most countries is modelled on the Berne Convention. This dictates that composed works (such as music scores, poems, paintings and books) should be copyright for a minimum of 50 years after the death of the author. In the UK this has been made 70 years.

So in much of the world the situation was simple. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle, that were published during his lifetime, started to come into the public domain from 1980 depending on each country. Right now, I'm fairly confident in saying that his entire body of published work is in the public domain (except in the US) but you can check the situation for each country here.

This covers the entire Sherlock Holmes Canon and, as a result, we are free (outside of the US) to write anything we like about the canonical duo (the same obviously cannot be said about modern adaptations such as Sherlock which have their own copyright that is very much in force).

Write about those on the left but not those on the right

Now, in the UK, there is a different situation for literary works of an author published after their death (as long as they existed as works prior to 1989). In the UK such works are copyright until December 31st 2039. This applies to such things as Conan Doyle’s recently published correspondence and his whaling diary. However, given that this campaign is about the right to use Holmes and Watson in new works without a licence fee, this aspect is not all that relevant.

Now I don't really agree that any of the stories should still be in copyright anywhere in the world but that is clearly not my call. US law permits the last ten stories to be copyrighted (in the US) until 2022 and the fight that is now taking place is only made possible by this odd approach. Now, even though this only applies to the US, it affects anyone who writes pastiche stories or desires to make screen adaptations as their access to the US market depends on complying with the law in force in that market. If it were a small market people outside the US probably wouldn't care too much. However it is a massive market and people naturally want a slice of it.

I understand the Estate's attempt to cling onto the ownership of the characters. If you stood to benefit from a similar situation you probably would too - that is only human. Some of the arguments it is using are ropey - especially those about permitting the creation of multiple incarnations of Holmes and Watson with many personalities. Given that the characters are public domain elsewhere we already know how that situation pans out and while many distinctly uncanonical Sherlocks now exist the original has been neither lost nor damaged (at least not in my opinion).

Is it or is it not Holmes?

For now I'm content to sit back and see how this plays out but, in my opinion, the Estate is currently on the back foot.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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