Neither Baritsu Nor the Supreme Court Can Stop Sherlock Holmes from Falling Into the Public Domain

We previously reported on the failed attempts by the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., to extend the umbrella of United States copyright protection for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes-related works. After suffering a setback at the district court level (N.D. Ill.), the Conan Doyle Estate sought a reversal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. However, the Estate was again denied, with the Seventh Circuit panel unanimously affirming the lower court decision.

The Conan Doyle Estate, in a final leap, filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court stepping away from its novel copyright argument that literary characters who undergo continued development in later works should remain under copyright protection until the expiration of the copyright of the last work. Instead, the Estate chose to focus on the question of whether federal courts have jurisdiction to issue declaratory judgments of non-infringement when the accused infringing party has not yet provided a concrete work for comparison with the copyright-protected work.

On November 3, the Court denied the Conan Doyle Estate’s petition, leaving the appeals court decision intact. Therefore, any pre-1923 “Sherlock Holmes story elements” have indeed fallen over the cliffs and into the realm of the public domain. For at least the time being, and likely for the foreseeable future, literary characters in earlier works will not be entitled to an extension of copyright term based on character development in subsequent works.

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