Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., No. 14-1128 (7th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 and his last in 1927. Because of statutory extensions of copyright protection culminating in the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, American copyrights on the final stories will not expire until 2018-2022. The copyrights on the other 46 stories and four novels have expired, making them part of the public domain. Klinger is co-editor of an anthology: A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon (2011). Klinger’s publisher, paid the estate $5000 for a license. Klinger decided to create a sequel: In the Company of Sherlock Holmes. The estate learned of the project and threatened to prevent distribution of the book. Klinger obtained a declaratory judgment that he is free to use material in the 50 Sherlock Holmes stories and novels that are no longer under copyright, but may use nothing in the 10 stories still under copyright that has sufficient originality to be copyrightable. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, first rejecting an argument that the court had no subject-matter jurisdiction because there was no actual case or controversy, then rejecting an argument that copyright on a “complex” character, such as Holmes or Watson, whose full complexity is not revealed until a later story, remains under copyright until the later story falls into the public domain. The Constitution, Art. I, section 8, authorizes copyright protection only for “limited Times.” The estate sought “near-perpetual copyright” in seeking 135 years of protection for the character of Sherlock Holmes.
The court issued a subsequent related opinion or order on August 4, 2014.