Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sherlock Holmes Loses a Case

The most famous detective in history, Sherlock Holmes, was born in the imagination of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For many years after Doyle passed away, copyright law prohibited others from using the character of Sherlock Holmes without authorization by Doyle’s estate. But now, copyrights have expired on most Sherlock Holmes stories.

The copyright has expired on the famous story about the dog that did not bark. In the story called “Silver Blaze,” a Sherlock Holmes story relating to the disappearance of a valuable race horse in the middle of the night, a plotting detective from Scotland Yard was having difficulty solving the crime. He said to Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention.” Sherlock Holmes responded, “To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” The Scotland Yard detective was irritated and retorted, “The dog did nothing in the night time” to which Holmes replied “That was the curious incident.” By recognizing the significance of the dog that did not bark, Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery. The person who took the valuable race horse, must have been someone known to the dog or else the dog would have barked.

This story is freely available, but ten of the Holmes stories were published after 1923, which means they continue to be protected by copyright in the United States. The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, insists that the Sherlock Holmes character cannot be used by new authors without obtaining prior approval from the estate, because Holmes character continues to develop in the final ten stories protected by copyright. But a federal court in Chicago recently held that new authors may freely use the Sherlock Holmes character as long as the part of Holmes’ character developed in the final ten stories are not used. And that result is, as Holmes himself might have said, “Elementary my dear friend Watson!”

Listen to the radio commentary here:

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