The mystery of copyright coverage for Sherlock Holmes continues, with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting an argument that “complex” literary characters justify the extension of copyright protection.

The appellate panel’s decision leaves 4 novels and 46 short stories about the detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson in the public domain.

The case involved Leslie Klinger, the author of numerous books and articles on Sherlock Holmes, who sought a declaratory judgment against the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the scope of copyright protection for the famous detective as well as other characters and story elements. Klinger faced the possibility that his new anthology of stories based on Holmesian elements would not be published after the estate demanded payment for a license.

Last December a federal court judge declared that only a handful of elements from 10 short stories about Holmes and Watson remain protected by copyright, having been published after Jan. 1, 1923. The federal district court drew a dividing line between Doyle’s works published prior to 1923, ruling they were all in the public domain, and those published after, which remained protected by copyright.

The estate appealed, arguing that complex characters like Holmes and Watson should remain under copyright because their characters continued to evolve in the later stories. Under this theory, the original character could not lawfully be copied without a license from the writer until the copyright on the later work, in which that character appears in a different form, expires.

But a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit disagreed with the estate’s “quixotic” argument. “We cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending copyright beyond its expiration,” the court wrote. “When a story falls into the public domain, story elements – including characters covered by the expired copyright – become fair game for follow-on authors.”

Incremental additions of originality in the later works do not extend copyright protection, the court concluded. Allowing such an extension would shrink the public domain and reduce creativity for writers generally as well as the original author, who would have an incentive to write stories involving old characters in an effort to prolong copyright protection, the panel said.

The court refused to distinguish “round” or “complex” fictional characters as worthy of greater copyright protection, even if Holmes and Watson were more complete in the later works.

“The spectre of perpetual, or at least nearly perpetual, copyright…looms, once one realizes that the Doyle estate is seeking 135 years (1887-2022) of copyright protection for the character of Sherlock Holmes as depicted in the [first story],” the panel wrote.

The court affirmed summary judgment for Klinger. The estate’s attorney told the ABA Journal his client is considering appellate options, expressing concern about the feasibility of using the characters without using the remaining protected elements.

To read the decision in Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, click here.

Why it matters: The 7th Circuit refused to extend copyright protection for “complex” characters who may be developed in later works by the author, finding no support for the contention in case law, statute, or even policy.