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What's with the name?

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Great Scott!

Ready Your Fanfic, ‘Cause Sherlock Holmes Is Now In the Public Domain

A judge has ruled that the vast majority of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain in the US, which means (among other things) that you can make money off your Johnlock fic without Conan Doyle’s heirs swooping down on you with blazing swords, ready to exact financial vengeance. It’s go time.

Editors Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King were all ready to release a short story anthology called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes when Conan Doyle’s estate contacted the publisher and suggested that they’d keep the book from being published in major bookstores unless they received a $5,000 licensing fee. But Klinger and King, who’d already paid the licensing fee for a previous anthology, weren’t up for that, and they took the issue to court.

See, under US copyright law everything published before 1923—which includes all but ten of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories—is in the public domain. The author’s estate argued that, in effect, the characters weren’t “finished” until the very last story was published. Key to that argument was the fact that those stories don’t just cover the end of Sherlock and Watson’s lives, and as such elements introduced in those post-1923 stories are essential to the characters as a whole. Watson, no matter who writes him, always used to play rugby—a fact established in the 1924 story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”—and that always impacts his character whether or not it’s specifically mentioned.

If you think that sounds like bunk, Chief Judge Rubén Castillo agrees with you. Under his decision it is now completely kosher for anyone (in the US, that is) to write their own Sherlock Holmes stories as long as they steer clear of elements from the post-1923 stories, which—barring a change in copyright law—don’t enter the public domain until 2023. So you can’t write about Watson’s talent for rugby or his second wife (unless you’re in the UK, where all the Holmes stories are in the public domain). But if you want to publish a coffee shop AU where Sherlock is the Worst Barista Ever, and his long-suffering manager Lestrade would fire him if his brother didn’t happen to be the city health inspector… go wild.

(via: Geekosystem)

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  • Elwyne

    In a related note, Les & Laurie’s first collection, A Study in Sherlock, is fantastic, and Laurie’s own pastiche series, beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is some of the best mystery writing out there.
    And yes, we call them by their first names. :)

  • Anonymous

    Hm. I always thought that the Sherlock Holmes stories were already in the public domain, I didn’t know that 10 of them were still protected by copyright. Interesting.

    Copyright laws are so…weird.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I have the feeling I have seen all sorts of filmed “fan fics” of SH in the last 20 years. How about trying to adapt one of the original stories for a change?

  • Abel Undercity

    The government changed copyright law in the US to ensure that nothing enters the public domain in the US until 2019. Duke University maintains a site commemorating what would have entered public domain under the original law.

  • Nuuni Nuunani

    Its really only in the states. In virtually every other part of the world from canada to britain to france, holmes is very much a public domain figure.

  • Anonymous

    The US copyright laws are very…odd. We studied them for a few weeks in one of my classes and we just came to the conclusion that they’re weird, stifling in the way the halt access to creative works, and seem less interested in protecting the interests of the creator than they are preserving ways to make money off them. It’s all weird, especially given that things that are still under copyright here are in the public domain in other countries. I don’t get it, myself.

  • Bevin Warren

    you mean like the current UK series?

  • The Gaf

    I am probably in the minority but I hate this ruling. If you’re a writer, be a writer. Create your own characters, or pay the freight for standing on someone else’s shoulders. If your “fanfic” is so awesome, it will withstand having new and original characters.

  • ampersands

    Without fanfic we wouldn’t have:
    The Aeneid
    the Divine Comedy
    Paradise Lost
    most of Shakespeare
    Moliere’s Phaedre
    James Joyce’s Ulysses
    Wide Sargasso Sea
    etc etc etc, which is not even consulting all of the non-original characters in historical fiction.

    The history of narrative art basically centers around retelling stories in a way you want to. While original stories are wonderful and good, don’t discount fanfiction before recognizing how basically every adaptation of any work ever shares the same DNA as fanfic (I mean, are you seriously arguing that Sherlock and Elementary and the RDJ Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t have been made at all?). There’s a huge dimension to any story given to how the artist understands her own characters and the way he tells the story–not to the characters themselves.

  • Anonymous

    Copyright is reaching a point where credulity is stretched past reasonability. Seek out Spider Robinson’s _Melancholy Elephants_ for a good argument.

  • Nirali

    yes to all the coffeeshop aus. all of them

  • Lien

    Ladies and gentleman? Start your OTP fanfic…. now!

  • Abel Undercity

    The system here is geared to favor the interests of our undying “corporate persons.”

  • Nuuni Nuunani

    To add to that, any work that features a historical figure is a fanfic, regardless of the persons tangability. Any series taking placee on earth obviously has to borrow prexisting elements (such as Jim Butcher’s novels being heavily centered around chicago which is practically a character itself in the novels)

    Saying no to the use of a character someone else has come up with would mean alternate history fiction coulnd’t happen. It would put a serious blow to steampunk and it would mean any of the stories featuring the likes of Lincoln or Tesla or Curie would be unrealized.

  • Anne Atevens

    I rather sympathize with the family’s position that the body of work should be considered as a whole, and not just story-by-story based upon publication date. I wouldn’t want this approach applied to licensed works, and I can imagine scenarios in which it could be manipulated (an author polishes off a crappy short story during old age just to protect copyright), but I think if all the stories/movies/etc. are written by the original author, it makes sense to look at them as a whole and determine copyright based upon the latest publication date.

  • John Ender

    isn’t this the Law Disney helps change every once in a while so that Steamboat Willy/Mickey Mouse is copyrighted as long as it can?

  • Margaret

    Yes. Basically Disney is the reason that copyright laws in the US are as messed up as they are. Every time Mickey is up for public domain they fight to change the law for even longer.

  • KF

    Then we’d never have great stuff like Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” the BBC’s “Sherlock,” old Marvel Conan comics, Bill Willingham’s “Fables,” Osamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis,” or a fun lark like “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”

  • KF

    “I can imagine scenarios in which it could be manipulated (an author polishes off a crappy short story during old age just to protect copyright)”

    That sort of does happen, at least in comics, from what I understand. (I may be mistaken about this.) Every so often, old characters put in an appearance in order to maintain either copyright or trademark. And sometimes, characters are created in order to pre-empt near-infringement by similar characters. (This is where Spider-Woman and She-Hulk came from, if I remember correctly.)

  • Anonymous

    I had no idea it was because of Mickey and Disney that copyright laws started down the road they’re on now…huh. That’s both interesting and sort of childhood killing.

  • John Ender

    I know I read somewhere that Mickey may not even have been copyrighted in a proper way, and that the person that said it got sued for it… just don’t remember where…

  • scottmonty

    Copyright is irrelevant for fanfic; that’s covered under the Fair Use doctrine. For an in-depth discussion with Les Klinger, who brought the suit, and Betsy Rosenblatt, a Sherlockian and an intellectual property scholar, check out I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere’s special episode with the two.

  • Dave

    While all great works of art, you’re all acting like literature would have collapsed if they’d never been written.

    …Because it would? Just going by the English language canon, we wouldn’t have Beowulf, any Arthurian history/romance, or hagiographies (saints’ lives, i.e. historical RPF), which takes care of literally almost everything published in the Middle Ages except for the Bible and non-fiction. Then you hit the early modern period and you only get Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (goodbye, “face that launched a thousand ships”; Doctor Faustus is based on popular legend), maybe a few plays by Jonson (who relied heavily on classical theater), and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Just The Tempest. No Much Ado About Nothing (based on parts of Orlando Furioso). No Macbeth or Julius Caesar (more historical RPF). No Hamlet (based on Danish legend). Keep in mind this subsequently wipes out all work based on THOSE works; the remaining books, poetry, and plays are pretty thin on the ground…

  • The Gaf

    None of your examples have anything to do with copyright law. Thats what this is about. The owner/creator of the character and his family deciding what to do their property. This sophistry about where stories come from has nothing to do with this ruling or my note about “paying the frieght.”

  • Dave

    None of your examples have anything to do with copyright law.

    True! I was responding to your insinuation that literature would not have collapsed without the above-mentioned works, an outcome that I find unlikely given that majority of English-language literature for the first millennium of its existence was based on pre-existing works. Sorry if that was confusing.

    However, it is relevant to the discussion as it reveals how authors throughout the ages and across the world have interacted with the works of others, and how their audiences have responded to the products of that interaction. The overwhelming implication is that humankind produces and consumes transformative literature enthusiastically, which any law should take into account if it has any hope of being relevant.

    There’s no question that creators should be fairly compensated during their lifetimes (and perhaps for a certain period afterwards). However, they cannot ignore that by making their work public, the audience is going to react to as it always has and potentially use it to fuel their own creativity — which, going back to the above examples, has the possibility of great cultural value. Personally, I feel it is the onus of the creator who does not want their work consumed in this way to not disseminate it publicly, and I’m having a hard time seeing the value of paying a fee to the estate of the unknown author of the Epic of Gilgamesh if I wanted to write about Enkidu.

  • Heidi Mason

    I adore Laurie *lol*