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A study in copyright: Estate seeks to protect Sherlock characters

Over time, certain literary or movie characters enter into the realm of cultural icons. The significance of these figures can extend far beyond the lifetime of the individual who created them. As such, estate administration and planning becomes very relevant to this type of intellectual property.

The world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, has recently become the subject of estate litigation in the United States. Although Holmes is a fictional character, his likeness and persona falls under the protection of federal copyright laws, or does it? This is the central question involved in the case.

At this point, a portion of the Holmes stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are no longer copyrighted, which means they are in the public domain. The Doyle estate doesn't receive any royalties or licensing fees from those specific works. However, 10 Holmes stories are still copyrighted. As such, the estate believes that Sherlock, and many other characters, are still protected under the law.

The primary argument made by the estate is that character development took place over the course of the entire series. As a result, the intricate nature of Doyle’s characters will inevitably be represented in new publications.

Not long ago, a judge ruled against the estate, which will allows writers to freely use Holmes' character. However, new depictions cannot involve developments in the later stories without implicating copyright law. At this time, the Doyle estate plans to appeal the ruling.

Ultimately, this ruling could have major implications for any character that was developed over the course of many years. Dedicating so much time to creating characters and the world they inhabit is something that's important to many writers. Ultimately, this story raises the importance of understanding intellectual property as it relates to estate planning.

Source: Detroit Free Press, "Writer, Doyle estate dispute copyright on Sherlock," Jan. 3, 2014

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