Would Doyle have not bothered to write the Sherlock Holmes books had he realized his heirs might lose their chance to extort fees from imitators 135 years later?
Would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have refrained from writing the Sherlock Holmes stories had he realized his heirs might lose their chance to extort fees from imitators 130 years later?

In a long-overdue victory for common sense and freedom of expression, the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must pay the legal fees incurred by author Leslie Klinger in successfully challenging the estate’s spurious claim of copyright protection for all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and any subsequent stories by any author using the Holmes and Watson characters and other personae from the stories.

The court rebuked the Doyle heirs as extortionists and praised Klinger for performing a public service by bringing them into court. The BBC reports:

A US appeal court ruled the copyright had expired, and said the estate had been “disreputable” in levying fees. . . .

The US Court of Appeal described the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd’s efforts to charge licence fees to for which there is “no legal basis” as “a disreputable business practice”. . . .

“In effect he (Klinger) was a private attorney general, combating a disreputable business practice – a form of extortion – and he is seeking by the present motion not to obtain a reward but merely to avoid a loss.

“He has performed a public service – and with substantial risk to himself, for had he lost he would have been out of pocket,” it continued.

“For exposing the estate’s unlawful business strategy, Klinger deserves a reward but asks only to break even.”

The BBC story summarizes the case as follows:

In June, the seventh US circuit court of appeals in Chicago said that the character of Sherlock, along with 46 stories and four novels in which he has appeared, was in the public domain.

However, 10 further stories, published between 1923 and 1927, are still protected by US copyright, which expires in December 2022.

Sir Arthur’s estate had argued this copyright protection meant that anyone creating original stories based on Sherlock should pay for the privilege.

After paying the Doyle heirs for the right to publish a volume of new Holmes stories in 2011, Klinger refused to pay the estate for the rights to publish a second volume. He sued the Doyle estate, arguing that the characters were in the public domain. He won in both the appeals court and the Supreme Court.

The BBC reports that the Doyle heirs claimed the decision “reduces the incentive for authors to create great literature by cutting short the value of copyrights protecting two of the world’s great characters.” That’s a ludicrous argument in the case at hand, given that copyright periods were much shorter in the 1880s, when Doyle started publishing the Holmes stories. And it is still ludicrous today, given that any author would be a fool to refrain from publishing a book that could turn out to be an instant bestseller, simply because his or her heirs might no longer be able to demand fees from imitators nearly 130 years later. That’s obvious nonsense. Copyright laws around the world have become absurdly expansive, and this incident shows just how outrageous this form of restraint of trade and culture has become.