Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., No. 14-1128, 2014 WL 2726187 (7th Cir. June 16, 2014)

When Holmes scholar Klinger published his first Study in Sherlock book, he paid a royalty to the estate of Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. However, for the sequel, Klinger refused to pay the royalty, explaining that the Doyle copyrights had expired. The Estate threatened to block the sale of Klinger's book by major retailers, and Klinger sued for a declaratory judgment. The Estate defaulted by failing to appear. Klinger filed a motion for summary judgment, and the estate answered, arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that the copyright in the relevant works had not yet expired. The district court granted summary judgment to Klinger and the Estate appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Detecting no error in the district court opinion, Judge Posner wrote the affirming opinion. He first explained that based on the defendant's threats to block the sale of the book by major retailers and also threatening litigation, there was clearly a case or controversy creating subject matter jurisdiction.

Judge Posner then elucidated copyright law for the defendants. The defendants had argued that because the copyright in a later Sherlock Holmes, where the Holmes character had been altered from the earlier work, had not expired, the earlier Holmes works were extended by virtue of the addition of originality in the later works. The court rejected this argument finding no basis in law to support it.

The court explained that while any originality in the later works remained protected, once the earlier works fell into the public domain, there is no copyright protection for those works. The court reasoned that extending copyright protection would decrease the public domain, thus increasing the cost of authorship and discourage creativity. Holding that alterations to a character cannot revive the copyright in the original character, the court of appeals affirmed.