We talk a lot about copyrights and intellectual property and what it could mean if laws are changed, added or enforced harder. But it’s not so often that we encounter a case from traditional media where a famous “property” changes its nature. I mean, what would it mean if Star Wars was in the public domain? Now there is such a case – Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective from sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and numerous movies (he’s possibly the most filmed character in history) has entered public domain, at least to a large part.
But first, what is “public domain”? It is a term describing works of art where the copyright has either expired, or the creator has decided to let the work loose without traditional copyright attached to it. Wikipedia says it like this:
Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. Examples include the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, The King James Bible, most of the early silent films, the formulae of Newtonian physics, and the patents on powered flight. According to the formal definition, the public domain consists of works that are unavailable for private ownership or are available for public use.
For example, copyright belongs to the author (or its descendants or publisher) of a book for 50 or 70 years after the person’s death, depending on which country the author lived in. This means that a company, organisation or foundation can handle the copyrights of Agatha Christie or Elvis Presley for a few decades more, and they can give licences for TV productions, movies or new records. However, in the case with sir Doyle, he died in 1930 and now it is 84 years since he died. In other words, his works should now be in the public domain.
There’s some differences between US copyright law and European copyright law, so not everything and anything about the Sherlock Holmes stories are public domain. I’m not going to go into the legal details and differences now, but a judge in Chicago has decided that the characters in the stories are now in the public domain.
And what does that mean? It means that anyone who wants to write new books and stories about the characters no longer need permission or pay license fees to the Doyle foundation. (A few exceptions exist due to extended copyrights in stories written after 1922, but those limitations will expire over the next 8 years too.) So for the first time, we can have brand new Holmes stories written by anyone! You, me, or famous authors.
This principle means that any work of art or litterature can be extended and expanded once copyright expires. A whole new Holmes world opens up! All of it may not be as clever as the originals, but that’s another debate. For some franchises, it is very sad that nothing new is produced to keep interest up, but now authors can write sequels to Sherlock Holmes, or produce movies and TV without being controlled by a few people. Fans can produce new Holmes stories and publish them on the web without being sued by the Doyles. I am not saying they are bad people, I’m just highlighting the principle. The Doyle estate plans to appeal the decision, of course.
It’s of course the same with the music of Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi. You can record your own symphonies without paying any royalties or licence fees. But even though the compositions are in public domain now, recent recordings are not. If you buy a CD released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2010, the recording (the sound on the disc) is still copyrighted by them, so you cannot exploit it without getting a permission.