The Sherlock Holmes Copyright Debate: How it Could Affect a Media Business


markus-winkler-afW1hht0NSs-unsplashThe subject of copyrights on older book material has not generated much controversy until recently with the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes books. If you are familiar with copyright law, you are aware that all books written prior to 1923 were placed into the public domain a number of years ago. This gave more power to media companies in hunting down works written in the 19th or early 20th century to adapt into movies without needing to pay anyone.

Legal problems are now developing based on how the Sherlock Holmes books continued beyond 1923. Doyle ultimately decided to continue writing more books about the great detective where additional character traits were revealed. With all of the Holmes books prior to 1923 recently falling into public domain, media companies assumed they would be able to acquire and use every Sherlock Holmes trait Doyle wrote. But now the Doyle estate is starting to argue against this idea.What happens when a series of stories are created and part of them fall in public domain and others don’t?

If you own a business specializing in media, this may become an issue if you are creating intellectual property with existing public domain characters.

Creating New, Original Sherlock Holmes Stories

At the heart of this legal debate are those writing new Holmes books based on the character traits seen in the early works. So far, the idea that the Doyle estate should be compensated based on an overall series of books has been upheld legally. This leaves things open for media companies to create new works of Sherlock Holmes. Regardless, it does not mean the legal fights are done. Should you still go ahead with such a plan? And what about the future of other popular characters that eventually fall into the public domain?

The Future May Not Be Elementary, Watson

Because the Holmes character is a very powerful media character, it may be a good idea to tread carefully writing new material including Holmes. That’s because any future legal turnover could place your new works in legal jeopardy or being placed out of print as a result.

You also should seriously consider any popular book character your company has created and how they might be used in the future. If the legal idea holds up that a series of books should matter (even if some of the books fall into public domain), it could decide future compensation for your company. For the future financial benefit of your company, it’s something to ponder and to work out plans to get your copyrights renewed if possible.


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