District court holds that various characters, character traits, and other story elements from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that appeared in works first published in the United States prior to January 1, 1923, are in public domain and free for public use.
Plaintiff Leslie S. Klinger brought a declaratory judgment action against defendant Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., seeking a declaratory judgment that various characters, character traits, and other story elements from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were free for the public to copy without infringing Conan Doyle’s rights under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authored four novels and 56 short stories (the Canon) featuring the fictional characters of detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. The four novels and 46 of the 56 short stories were first published in the United States on various dates prior to January 1, 1923. The other 10 stories were published thereafter.
Klinger filed for summary judgment, seeking a determination that the public was free to use the characters, character traits, and story elements from Conan Doyle’s works because those elements have entered the public domain. Conan Doyle argued that because Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were continually developed throughout the entire Canon, the copyright protecting the 10 stories should extend to the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters and the story elements pertaining to those characters. The court held that Klinger and the public may use any story elements that were first introduced in the pre-1923 public domain stories without seeking a license.
The court then examined the 10 post-January 1, 1923, works to determine which portion of the Sherlock Holmes story elements originated in the post-1923 works. If the elements constitute “increments of expression” – the storylines, dialogue, characters, and character traits newly introduced by the 10 stories – then they are protected from unauthorized use by the Conan Doyle’s copyright in those stories.
Klinger admitted that the Sherlock Holmes story elements include elements first introduced in the copyrighted 10 stories. The post-1923 story elements pertain to the characters Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes and include: (1) Dr. Watson’s second wife; (2) Dr. Watson’s background as an athlete; (3) and Sherlock Holmes’ retirement from his detective agency. Klinger contended that the post-1923 story elements are events rather than characteristics of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes and, as such, are not copyrightable. She also argued that any material first introduced in the 10 stories does not complete the characters of Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson and therefore does not qualify for copyright protection. Courts do not distinguish between elements that “complete” a character and elements that do not, however, and the case law instructs that the “increments of expression” contained in copyrighted works warrant copyright protection.
The Seventh Circuit had previously only applied the “increments of expression” test to derivative works. Conan Doyle argued that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle developed his characters throughout the entire Canon, and therefore no single work in the Canon is a derivative of another work. The court disagreed, finding that because the Canon consists of subsequent works that are based on material from a pre-existing work (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story), the subsequent works in the Canon met the definition of derivative works and applied the increments of expression test.
Under the increments of expression test, the court found that, on the record before it, there was substantial evidence that the post-1923 story elements constitute “original expression” beyond what is contained in the public portion of the Canon, as it contained storylines, dialogue, characters, and character traits newly introduced in the 10 stories. Dr. Watson’s second wife and his athletic background, as well as Sherlock Holmes’ retirement, are a character, a character trait, and a storyline, respectively, that originated in the copyrighted 10 stories. While the court ruled that the pre-1923 story elements were free for public use, the court declined to grant summary judgment against the estate with respect to the post-1923 story elements.
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