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It's not elementary: Sherlock copyright case takes complex twist

Over the last year, pop culture has become consumed by Sherlock Holmes. Between major motion pictures, TV shows and Sherlock-inspired novels, there are serious business opportunities surrounding the famed fictional detective.

Of course, this Sherlock fascination has caught the interest of several parties, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate. Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, created a vast web of characters and fascinating mysteries. This fact has become the subject of a complex copyright law claim between the writer's estate and a California entertainment professional.

According to the Doyle estate, Sherlock Holmes and the other characters in the stories are still protected by U.S. copyright law. On the other hand, the entertainment professional claims that they are now in the public domain, so the estate has no claim to licensing fees any longer. A suit was filed to establish that Doyle's characters are no longer protected intellectual property.

United States law provides that literary works are protected for up to 95 years after an author's death.

Some of the Holmes stories have already entered the public domain in the U.S., but not all of them. The Doyle estate has used this point to build a case: Because some of the Holmes stories are still protected intellectual property, use of the characters must be licensed. According to court filings, Doyle developed his characters over the entire series of tales, so the earlier publications can't be separated from the later ones.

Businesses and legal entities have a vested interest in protecting their intellectual property. After all, Sherlock is a critical piece of Doyle's craft. With that being said, intellectual property law is incredibly complicated and, as this case shows, relies on intricate details. This is why it's important to be able to strategically defend a copyright claim.

Source: The Guardian, "Conan Doyle estate seeks to preserve US copyright of Sherlock Holmes's 'complex personality'," Liz Bury, Sept. 19, 2013

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