Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Detective work on the Sherlock copyright issue

On 8 August I wrote about a modern book featuring Sherlock Holmes, and noted (not for the first time) that the copyright of Conan Doyle's work(s) was a murky area, one which the wise person would stay well out of. Ditto for writing novels featuring the characters of any other writer whose work is still in copyright.

I had also written about the Conan Doyle copyright on 8 July, in the context of a wider discussion of the extent to which copyright prevents or allows the use of copyright characters in sequels or spinoffs; and that post recently attracted a comment from Darlene Cypser.

Darlene is a US attorney (among other things) who seems to be unusually well informed on the subject, so I have fished out her comment, lest it get overlooked, and reproduce it below. I finish off with a few comments of my own.

Here is what Darlene had to say:

I don't know enough about UK copyrights to agree or disagree with Ms Solomon's assessment of law there.

However, in the US, while here, too, copyright protects the expression of ideas and not ideas themselves, there is case law that has interpreted the law to protect the use of characters. In the US the use of the character would be considered a "derivative work" and only the copyright holder has the right to create a derivative work. I guarantee you that Disney believes this or they would not have gone to such an effort to extend the copyright law another 20 years to protect Mickey.

The whole issue is moot in the UK related to Sherlock Holmes because Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain the UK.

In the US all of the Sherlock Holmes stories EXCEPT those in the Casebook are now in the public domain. (The Casebook was just about to fall out of copyright when the Bono Act extended it another 20 years.)

This leaves an ambiguity. If the stories which defined the character are partially in and out of copyright can you create a story based on the character and claim you are basing it only on the public domain stories?

Of course, you can claim that but would you win in court? I don't think anyone can answer that question at the moment because no court has ruled on it.

Regarding the missing website: It is still around. They just moved it to a different domain, possibly due to the ongoing battles over the copyrights. You see, the website that you referred to does not tell the whole story. It merely tells the claims of Mrs. Andrea Plunket, ex-wife of Sheldon Reynolds. [See below: GOB]

Most Sherlockians acknowledge Jon Lellenberg as the appropriate representative of the Doyle estate. He represented Dame Jean Conan Doyle (the last of Doyle's children to die) and now represents her estate. (Go here and search on Arthur Conan Doyle: tyler.hrc.utexas.edu )

I think you are attributing the publication of some pastiches to Reynolds or Plunket which were authorized by Dame Jean through Lellenberg. The books authorized by Dame Jean or her estate say so.

There have been ongoing legal battles between these two sets of supposed representatives. However, the end result seems to be that both have some claim.

Many people don't seem to understand that if two people jointly own a copyright EITHER can authorize publication and NEITHER can prohibit any publication authorized by the other. That's a fact of US Copyright law.

In this case the parties claim their rights under different children of Conan Doyle.

Actually the person to blame for the mess is probably Sir Arthur himself. He obviously wrote his will without adequate legal advice. (I have a copy in front of me.)

If all the children and all the children's spouses and heirs had gotten along then there would not have been a problem. But you can't count on that. He should have put the copyrights in a trust, named an institution the trustee, and named his wife and children the beneficiaries. Then there probably would not have been 75 years of arguments and litigation.

Well, there you have it. The last time I myself had to make enquiries about a Conan Doyle matter was in 2002. I see from my files that I then corresponded with Jonathan Clowes Ltd., who appear to be the UK agents for Mrs Andrea Plunket. They wanted what I considered to be an unreasonable sum for what I had in mind, so I gave up on the idea. But perhaps, in view of what Darlene Cypser says, I was talking to the wrong people.

If you want to pursue your own ideas for the use of Sherlock or his mates (which I do not recommend), there is a website for the Andrea Plunket side of things. Follow the link to 'About the Estate' and you can find one view of the uninspiring history of the copyright dispute. There is no mention, so far as I can see, of Jon Lellenberg.

If you prefer to deal with Mr Lellenberg, he can be reached at JonLellenberg@aol.com.

The Sherlockian web site, edited by Chris Redmond, makes the following comment on the competing parties:
A recently created web site for "the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate" represents Andrea Plunket, the former wife of Sheldon Reynolds, producer of the 1954 television series starring Ronald Howard as Holmes. Reynolds controlled the copyrights in the 1950s. Plunket is proprietor of a guest house in Livingston Manor, New York. Her claims to rights in the Sherlock Holmes stories have been repeatedly rejected in U.S. federal court decisions (including Plunket v. Doyle, No. 99-11006, Southern District of New York, February 22, 2001; Pannonia Farms Inc. v. ReMax International and Jon Lellenberg, No. 01-1697, District of Columbia, March 21, 2005). She has also filed a claim to the name "Sherlock Holmes" as a United States trademark, and it too has been turned down.
There are lessons for us all there.

Number one, don't get involved with trying to negotiate deals to use other people's characters. It's not worth it. Not only do you have to deal with the (alleged) copyright holder, but, as you can see from the above example, there may be different situations in the US, UK, and every other country on the planet.

Number two, if you yourself own any copyrights which are worth a warm pitcher, for goodness' sake leave a will which is clear. And try to have children who will agree with each other.

Before I finish, here is a story which I find passably amusing.

Some twenty-odd years ago, when Andrea Plunket was still married to the film producer Sheldon Reynolds, I had dinner with her. Yes, I know, it's a very modest distinction, but some of us have to clutch at straws. Anyway, I found Andrea to be a perfectly amiable person, but that was not a universal view.

After Andrea and Sheldon were divorced (I don't know who did what to whom), she went off and became the close companion of Claus von Bulow. Yes, that very same Claus von Bulow who was accused of murdering his wife Sunny with a lethal injection of insulin, and who was, in due course, acquitted by a jury. His story was turned into a film, Reversal of Fortune, starring Jeremy Irons (who won an Oscar in the process).

At one point in all these shenanigans, Sheldon Reynolds was asked what he thought of his ex-wife going around with a man who had been accused of murder.

Sheldon gave it a bit of thought. 'Well,' he said, 'let's put it this way. If Claus marries Andrea, he'll wish he'd been found guilty.'


Anonymous said...

Check out this introduction article on Arthur Conan Doyle:
1.Sherlock Holmes
2.The Author's deductive skills
3.A political activist
4.The world's loss
5.Conan Doyle in the 21st Century

Capheind said...

Considering the last posts were in 2007 I'm assuming you may not see this, or discern it from the spam thats overtaken your comments. I'd say the whole issue of Sherlock Holmes is further proof that the copyright system is a bad idea done wrong. Sherlock holmes should be part of the public domain. Holmes is, afterall, a part of popular culture, and how is it in any way right that a single person own a part of everyones culture by a circumstance of birth. I did smile when Charles Sheffield got around the ambiguity by turning a historical personage, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, into a fictionalized "holmesian" character in The Amazing Dr. Darwin.

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