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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I have published five Sherlock Holmes related books, and the question of whether or not Sherlock Holmes and associated characters and books are in the Public Domain, keeps coming up. I recently posted on this in the Book Bazaar. There are some differences of opinion, but the consensus is that the characters are reliably in the public domain. The books are generally also considered to be in the Public Domain, but this is less certain. The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate has continued to contest this, but so far it looks like the estate has mostly lost the legal battle. Whatever copyrights may exist in the USA, are scheduled to expire in 2023.

Amazon.com and BandN.com publish the Sherlock Holmes books originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and if they pay anything to the Doyle estate for this, I am not aware of it.

Phillip Duke Ph.D.

Edited. Self-promotion is not allowed in the Café itself, though discussion, of course is. --Betsy
 

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Looks like this isn't a black-and-white situation. http://forum.freeadvice.com/copyrights-trademarks-39/protection-literary-characters-389908.html

ETA: more concise description from the Wiki, altho it should still be independently verified:
"The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes has led to hundreds of works based on the character - both adaptations into other media and original stories. The copyright in all of Conan Doyle's works expired in the United Kingdom in 1980 and are public domain there.[52] All works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain; this includes all Sherlock Holmes stories with the exception of some of the stories contained within The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. For works published after 1923 but before 1963, if the copyright was registered, its term lasts for 95 years.[53] The Conan Doyle heirs registered the copyright to The Case Book (published in the USA after 1923) in 1981 through the Copyright Act of 1976.[52][54][55]"
 

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I found this to be an interesting question, so I dug a little bit. I read the estate's stand here: http://www.sherlockholmesonline.org/LicensingInfo/index.htm and also read this thread: http://forum.freeadvice.com/copyrights-trademarks-39/literary-characters-enter-public-domain-316938.html

The special issue with using characters, as opposed to simply republishing stories, as we do with Oz, is that particularly famous characters may have been trademarked. Trademark is different than copyright, in that it lasts longer (perhaps forever, if it is in continuous use). The Ford Motor Company has been around a long time, but their company name is trademarked, so no one else can use it. I'm not sure how exactly it works, though, because I know there's some hullabaloo about Mickey Mouse, and there was a whole copyright extension on that, so that random people can't make Mickey dolls, t-shirts, etc. But if Mickey is trademarked, it would seem like that wouldn't be an issue...

If this is important to you, you could consult a lawyer, but be sure they're clear on the differences of copyright for the books (which has expired on all but one Sherlock Holmes book), copyright on a character (which I believe expires when the copyright on the book expires, though would that mean the first book or the last?) and potential trademarks.

If it does seem that the character has been trademarked, you might want to ask the estate how much they want. You might be surprised - it might be quite reasonable. You never know until you ask. There have certainly been other books published that "use" Sherlock Holmes, such as The Beekeepers Apprentice, so either 1) the estate is wrong and no license is required, or 2) the licensing fee is reasonable, at least to someone who expects to make decent sales.
 

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Here's another useful article and tidbid regarding Mickey and coyright/trademark:

Of course, even without the copyright extensions, it would still be next to impossible for anyone outside of Disney to use Mickey without permission, since he, like all Disney creations, is trademarked. Unlike copyrights, which do have dates of expiration, company trademarks are valid for as long as the company uses those trademarked items commercially. As long as Disney keeps Mickey on their employment roster, no one else can touch him.
Read the full text here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/30946/why-isnt-mickey-mouse-public-domain#ixzz2IcdGpwwn

EDITED to add:
If you want to wade through, this is very informative: http://www.ivanhoffman.com/characters.html

Just remember - just because someone says something is true on a discussion board or website, doesn't make it true. And just because the Arthur Conan Doyle estate claims they have trademark, doesn't mean they do (the Hoffman article linked to above makes it sound non-trivial to get trademark protection of a character). The estate's website is out of date (says things like certain works "will" enter public domain in 2003) so to me, that makes them less reputable/believable. But, it still might be cheaper and easier to pay them for a license to use their characters than to either pay a lawyer to research it, and/or fight the estate in court (it could cost you a lot of money even if you win).
 

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There's another thread on KB where this is sort of brought up. Hugh Howey has been getting requests from writers to extend his "Wool" series with their own books using the characters/world-building that he created - kind of a "fanfic" direction. He is completely fine with others doing so (even suggesting they sell their works when they thought they might just give them away). George Lukas did something like this with Star Wars per some comments (but i thought I also remembered a few lawsuits years ago so more research is needed - especially since Disney now bought SW franchise from Lukas).
Creative Commons with attribution was one solution that seems the most workable.
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If you are already talking with the Doyle estate you should suggest that they can either tightly control everything and end up with pennies or figure out how to be inclusive and encourage others to write in that world so that the work expands and generates dollars - your books links to the original content and creates mindshare, filling spaces on the top download charts and getting people to think, hey I do want to read the original source material too. 
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I went through the Conan Doyle estate for my Sherlock Holmes novella (Revenant) and a forthcoming collection of weird Holmes stories, plus my Professor Challenger novella that's out now from Dark Regions Press.

For me, it felt like the right thing to do as I'd heard from an anthology editor that the estate had threatened to legally block all US sales of a proposed Sherlock anthology unless they got permission.

They were very pleasant to deal with, and I like having the "Approved by the Conan Doyle Estate" on the book.
 

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williammeikle said:
I went through the Conan Doyle estate for my Sherlock Holmes novella (Revenant) and a forthcoming collection of weird Holmes stories, plus my Professor Challenger novella that's out now from Dark Regions Press.

For me, it felt like the right thing to do as I'd heard from an anthology editor that the estate had threatened to legally block all US sales of a proposed Sherlock anthology unless they got permission.

They were very pleasant to deal with, and I like having the "Approved by the Conan Doyle Estate" on the book.
I appreciate authors who have enough respect for other authors and their estates to do this, personally.
 
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jvin248 said:
George Lukas did something like this with Star Wars per some comments (but i thought I also remembered a few lawsuits years ago so more research is needed - especially since Disney now bought SW franchise from Lukas).
LucasArts was always very fan fiction friendly so long as you weren't publishing it for profit. Some of the writers who got their big breaks with writing Star Wars books were discovered through their fan fiction, and some of that fan fiction ended up getting woven into the official lore. Though I'm mostly pleased with Disney taking over the IP (if for no other reason that to stop Lucas from constantly making changing to the originals!) this is the one area I do have concern because Disney is not a fan fiction friendly company.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Mr. williammeikle, please let me know if the Estate required payment from you, and if so how much? If desired you can reply in confidence by email [email protected], thank you.
 

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They did ask for payment, but it's negotiated on a book by book basis dependent on how much money you expect it to make, so I can't give you a figure. They ask for some up front, a share of any profits, a copy of the book, and they ask for the estate logo to be prominent in the acknowledgements page in the book.

Be aware, they don't blindly accept. They ask to read and vet everything, and if they think anything at all is out of kilter or might reflect badly on the Holmes "name", or is not up to the standard they expect of Holmes stories, they'll not give permission. So by making them aware of your book, you'll be taking a certain degree of risk that you're putting yourself on their radar whereas they otherwise might not notice you.
 

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I'm sure I read just the other day that there was a big law suit going on right now to put Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain.

Personally I would wait and see how it turns out
 
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