A couple of weeks ago, a Chicago judge ruled that the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson have lost most of their copyright protection, and are in the public domain.
The ruling means a whole legion of fans can now create what is commonly known as “fan fiction,” or what some copyright holders refer to as “rip-off writing.”
Actually, the ruling illustrates the confusing state of copyright law today.
To be clear, writers, composers and artists need protection for their work.
The idea is that artists are allowed a monopoly for a short period of time so they can make money. Then the material goes into the public domain so others can use it as a springboard for developing new creations.
However, the law has also led to some nonsensical consequences.
For example, the first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in 1881, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930. But some of the stories, some, but not all, will be under copyright for another eight or nine years.
Emily Dickenson died in 1886, but her poems will stay under copyright protection until 2050.
And if the folks at Walt Disney have their way, Mickey Mouse will be protected until the end of time.
There is also a public interest concern that sometimes conflicts with ownership.
For instance, Dexter King, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., has claimed the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is his personal property. As such, he has successfully sued to keep newspapers from reprinting the speech. He also forced numerous Internet sites to remove the speech when it posted last year to mark its 50th anniversary.
Authors have a very real interest in making money from their work, but a way has to be found to balance the rights of the creator against the very real interest in the free exchange of ideas.