|The District Court's Opinion got this|
Kat's attention despite being on holiday.
Thus, it was with great delight that this Kat received an update yesterday afternoon from Mr Klinger's website Free-Sherlock announcing that the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ("District Court") had issued its ruling - just in time for this Kat to write this post before her term as a Guest Kat expires.
The background on this case, including the arguments of each party are described in prior Kat posts here and here.
The District Court first examined whether the Sherlock Holmes elements published prior to 1923 ("Pre-1923 Elements") are indeed elements that are no longer subject to copyright protection and are now in the public domain. The District Court quickly dispatched with this question by holding that the Second Circuit Court of Appeal's ruling in Silverman v. CBS, Inc. is applicable here. The District Court explained, "[i]t is a bedrock principle of copyright that 'once work enters the public domain, it cannot be appropriated as private (intellectual) property,' and even the most creative of legal theories cannot trump this tenet." Thus, the public may use the Pre-1923 Elements without obtaining a license from the Conan Doyle Estate.
The District Court next turned to the question of whether elements of the Sherlock Holmes canon published after 1923 ("Post-1923 Elements"), such as Dr Watson's athletic background and Sherlock Holmes' retirement, are "increments of expression" that are copyrightable, or if the Post-1923 Elements are plot elements, ideas, or events that are not copyrightable. Mr Klinger argued that these Post-1923 Elements are merely events in the lives of the Sherlock Holmes characters and are not subject to copyright protection. The District Court examined the Post-1923 works to determine whether they constituted "incremental original expressions" that are readily distinguishable from the prior works. It concluded that, as storylines, new characters and new character traits, these Post-1923 Elements are indeed increments of expression that are and remain subject to copyright protection, "and as a result neither Klinger nor the public are entitled to use them."
Unfortunately, the District Court stopped short of granting a permanent injunction barring the Conan Doyle Estate from asserting copyright in the elements of the Sherlock Holmes canon, even those elements that the District Court agreed are in the public domain. The creator of a derivative work or other work that makes use of Pre-1923 Elements thus risks a license fee demand or threat of litigation from the Conan Doyle Estate. However, based on this District Court ruling, the Conan Doyle Estate would likely be unable to prevail in a legal action against any creators who refuse to pay a license fee. Will 2014 see the publication of many new (and unlicensed) Sherlock Holmes derivative works that leverage the Pre-1923 Elements? This Kat will be eager to find out!
District Court Opinion here