In the end, copyright law may prove to be a craftier enemy than James Moriarty.
That, at least, could be the opinion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate, which was dealt a blow by the 7th Circuit on June 16. The court ruled that a large chunk of the great detective’s stories are now in the public domain and companies and individuals wishing to publish stories about Holmes are free to do so without paying a licensing fee, at least in most circumstances.
This is important news for individuals and companies who own characters whose copyright protection may soon expire. A large entertainment company like, say, The Walt Disney Company, would be interested in extending its copyright on a valuable character like Mickey Mouse. The character first appeared in the 1928 short “Steamboat Willie,” but in the 1930s it underwent design and character changes. Therefore, those later changes to the character would be protected even after its initial appearances fell into the public domain.
“The doctrine to protect characters in copyrighted works remains alive and well,” says Brehm. “A character that is sufficiently distinctive may earn copyright protection. Further, the 7th Circuit ruling confirms that when a work with a copyrighted character falls into the public domain, if that character is featured in subsequent works not in the public domain that include traits that are sufficiently distinctive, those new traits are protected and cannot be copied.” So, a company like Disney could be disappointed in the Klinger ruling, but can hold onto the knowledge that it won’t lose all of its protection for a beloved character in one fell swoop.