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Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate Appeal

By Joseph Perry

Oral Argument and Holding

The Seventh Circuit of Appeals heard oral arguments from the parties on May 22nd, in which the Conan Doyle Estate challenged the district court's judgment in two ways: 1) the district court had no subject matter jurisdiction because there was no actual legal controversy, and 2) the copyrights of round, complex characters like Sherlock Holmes remain protected under copyright law until the last Conan Doyle story falls into the public domain. On June 16th, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's motion for summary judgment and declaratory judgment in favor of Klinger, which stated that materials in 50 pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes novels and stories are in the public domain, but materials in post-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories are protected under copyright law.

Jurisdiction

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court had federal subject matter jurisdiction over Klinger's lawsuit because the Conan Doyle Estate's threat to sue Pegasus Books for copyright infringement and to block distribution of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes created a sufficient threat to constitute an actual controversy. The Conan Doyle Estate argued that Klinger's suit was unripe because In the Company of Sherlock Holmes was not complete, and thus, copyright infringement could not be decided until the book was finished. The court rejected the Conan Doyle Estate's argument because the only issue was whether Klinger could "copy the characters of Holmes and Watson as they are depicted in the stories and novels of Arthur Conan Doyle that are in the public domain," which could be determined without knowing the contents of the book. Thus, the Seventh Circuit held that the district court had federal subject matter jurisdiction over Klinger's lawsuit.

Copyright Infringement

The Seventh Circuit held that the pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters were in the public domain. The court rejected the Conan Doyle Estate's argument that a "'complex' character in a story, such as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson, whose full complexity is not revealed until a later story, remains under copyright until the later story falls into the public domain." Essentially, the Conan Doyle Estate sought "135 years (1887-2022) of copyright protection for the character of Sherlock Holmes as depicted in the first Sherlock Holmes story," and the court stated that "we cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration. Thus, the Seventh Circuit held that the pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters are in the public domain.

Conclusion

The Seventh Circuit of Appeals affirmed the district court's motion for summary judgment and declaratory judgment in favor of Klinger, which stated that materials in 50 pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes novels and stories are in the public domain, but materials in post-1923 stories are protected under copyright law.

The Seventh Circuit's opinion is here: doyle.pdf

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 20, 2014 9:19 AM.

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