A recent ruling by a federal judge in Chicago has apparently ushered Sherlock Holmes into the public domain. But, so as to dispense with the obligatory pun right away, all is not as elementary as it seems. The situation is complex because later Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories are still copyrighted in the US, although the expiration date is not so far off. In effect, Holmes is both in the public domain and copyrighted at the same time.
How is this good news? The first thing to note about IP struggles of this magnitude is that they are rarely straightforward procedural battles. Like the proverbial detective story, they contain twists and turns in abundance. Take the ongoing epic copyright lawsuit over Superman, along with Holmes certainly one of the great money-making cultural properties of all time. The heirs of Superman creator Jerry Siegel are locked in what seems like an endless seesaw battle with DC Comics (Warner Bros).
But let’s say this is a conclusive win for public domain advocates. What sort of precedent might it set? Ownership is about money, to be sure. A cash-rich character like Holmes, especially when channeled by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, will make its owners very wealthy. The other argument is about stewardship. We want the characters that we love to be under the best creative custody. We don’t want to see them mishandled by idiots and knaves.
Supporters of the public domain see things quite differently. They are of the “let a thousand flowers bloom” school of thought. They are for the common good, and believe in less restrictions on individual creativity. They don’t find the argument that less copyright means diminished creator incentive persuasive.
Sherlock Holmes will make an excellent test subject for what happens to prized cultural capital once it enters the wild west of unregulated free usage. The fate of the Great Detective should be instructive. Will there be adaptations galore? Or will that which was once forbidden but is now permitted suddenly seem boring. We will keep our magnifying glasses at the ready!