16 January 2014

Exploiting elements in public domain

‘What one man can invent, another can discover’ – Arthur Conan Doyle’s words spoken through Sherlock Holmes on deciphering the code which used figures of dancing men. Perhaps, it could apply to the imagination of a creative human mind. Do characters/elements develop till the last work of the author or can they be vivisected?

The Conan Doyle estate asserted that the characters continued to be developed throughout and would remain copyrighted till the final issue entered public domain in 2022. The controversy spans several years and the case specifically focussed on pre-1923 elements which were indubitably in public domain and elements in 10 stories which were published in the US after 1923. 

The court (District Court of Illinois, North) sought to apply the ‘increments of expression’ test and held since only a low threshold of originality was required, post-1923 elements like, a character’s second wife, retirement of the protagonist etc were eligible for copyright protection. The court also denied the motion for injunctive relief barring the Conan Doyle estate from asserting the copyright over any of Sherlock Holmes story elements.


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