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This article was published 3/1/2014 (1116 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CHICAGO -- It's the kind of puzzle that might have amused Sherlock Holmes himself.
Now that copyright protections have expired on nearly all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales about the pipe-puffing detective in the deerstalker hat, are writers free to depict the character in new mysteries without seeking permission or paying licence fees?
A federal judge in Chicago says yes, so long as they don't stray into territory covered in the 10 stories still protected by copyright. But the Doyle estate is considering an appeal this month. Descendants of the Scottish physician and author argue he continued to develop the characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson in the later works so they should remain off-limits until the remaining copyrights run out at the end of 2022.
"It's a bogus argument. It means you can reprint Conan Doyle's own stories freely but you can't make up a new story? It doesn't make logical sense," said author Leslie Klinger, who brought the case against the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. to settle the matter.
With last week's ruling in hand, Klinger plans to finish work on In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, original short stories featuring characters and other elements from Doyle's work.
If appeals judges hold it up, the ruling could lift the threat of legal action for the untold scores of writers out there churning out pastiches and fan fiction without permission. Most of them fly under the radar. In Klinger's case, the estate demanded $5,000, he said.
"Whatever decision they make will essentially determine the fate of many characters, not just Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but very intricate characters such as James Bond. ... What happens as copyrights expire on Ian Fleming's original stories?" said Doyle estate attorney William Zieske.
At the heart of the dispute is whether a character can be copyright protected over an entire series of works. The Doyle estate argues that a basic element of copyright law allows for that if the character is highly delineated, as opposed to a two-dimensional character who doesn't change over time.
In ruling against the estate, Judge Ruben Castillo called that a "novel legal argument" that was "counter to the goals of the Copyright Act." The lawsuit was filed in Chicago because a literary agent for the Doyle estate is based in Illinois.
Doyle produced a total of four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 stories between 1887 and 1927.
Klinger argues that everything you really need to know about Holmes and Watson is in the novels and stories published before 1923 that are in the public domain in the U.S. That includes their family backgrounds, education and a slew of character traits: Holmes' bohemian nature and cocaine use, erratic eating habits, his Baker Street lodgings, his methods of reasoning, his clever use of disguise, his skill in chemistry and even his weapon of choice, a loaded hunting crop.
"Everything that the lay person would think of as being a characteristic of Holmes or Watson is in those pre-1923 stories," said Klinger.
But the Doyle estate says there are other significant elements in those later stories; to depict Holmes and Watson based only on parts of the canon that predate 1923 would ignore the extent to which the characters continued to evolve, said Doyle attorney Zieske.
"To reduce true literary characters to a cardboard cutout, parts of which can be carved off, I think does literature a great disservice."
-- The Associated Press