Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the public domain

The general public and the arts benefit greatly from creative works in the public domain. Those works include books, music, movies and other art whose limited period of copyright protection has expired.
No one would argue that patented inventions should be owned in perpetuity by the inventors, their families or corporations.
Generic drugs and other low-cost products are made possible by inventions coming off patent protection. Plus, inventors have an incentive to create new, better products as the patents on older inventions expire.
But when it comes to literature, songs and other creative works, people are more tolerant of prolonged periods of protection. They don’t understand that society benefits greatly when works come off copyright protection.
Copyright protection was never meant to be a way to enrich descendants of creators or corporations for generations.
But here we are in an age when patents in the U.S. expire after 17 years, but copyrights can easily last for 100 years or more thanks to numerous extensions. Patents and copyrights used to be on equal footing.
U.S. copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For works created for hire (such as for a movie studio), the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication.
Critics of the U.S. government say it serves the interests of corporate political campaign donors and their lobbyists more than the general public. No place is this clearer than with the entertainment industry, which has bought more influence than just about any other industry.
Every time Mickey Mouse approaches the end of copyright protection, the Walt Disney Co. returns to Capitol Hill and persuades lawmakers to extend the terms. Expect to see Disney’s lobbyists press Washington, D.C., soon for another extension as “Steamboat Willy” (1928), the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, is set to enter the public domain in 2023.
The bastardization of copyright and trademark laws can be seen all around us.
One recent example is the adult children of the late Marvin Gaye suing pop music artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for mimicking Gaye’s musical style on “Blurred Lines.”
Another is pop singer Taylor Swift trademarking such phrases as “This sick beat” and “Nice to meet you. How you been?” from her songs.
Bad copyright precedents include the family of Martin Luther King Jr. copyrighting the late civil rights leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech, so news organizations and others have to pay for its use even though it was a public speech, not a commercial performance.
Or how about the song “Happy Birthday To You,” which was first published in 1912? The copyright holders continue to collect fees for its use in movies, TV shows, radio and elsewhere when it arguably should be in the public domain.
Then there’s the case of Sherlock Holmes.
Even though the first Sherlock Holmes detective story was published in 1887, the estate of author Arthur Conan Doyle, continued to push for copyright protection. The Doyle estate exhausted its legal appeals in the U.S. in 2014 and Holmes is now definitively in the public domain, free for all to use.
Being in the public domain allows artists of all stripes to adapt the character and stories into new works without having to get permission or pay licensing fees. High schools can perform Sherlock Holmes plays, comic book artists can make Sherlock Holmes graphic novels, filmmakers can make Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows.
Sherlock Holmes joins other public domain characters as Hercules, Snow White, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Dracula, Frankenstein, Tarzan, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz, Tom Sawyer and many more.
Being in the public domain provides increased exposure for works that have been locked up by copyright restrictions. Consider all the Sherlock Holmes adaptations in production.
The BBC has “Sherlock,” a TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. CBS has “Elementary” starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Warner Bros. is developing a third “Sherlock Holmes” movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as the famed detective. Paramount Pictures is doing “Young Sherlock Holmes,” which depicts Holmes and buddy Watson as teenagers.
A recent comic book by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi called “Watson and Holmes” reimagines Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as African Americans in New York City’s Harlem district.
Soon we’ll see Ian McKellan as an elderly Sherlock Holmes in the movie “Mr. Holmes,” directed by Bill Condon. It’s based on the book “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (2005).

Art: Infographic of Sherlock Holmes film and TV adaptations from the Blackmoods blog.

Related reading:

Years Of Brainwashing The Public Into Thinking Everything Creative Must Be 'Owned' Has Led To This New Mess (Techdirt; March 13, 2015)

Why you should care about the public domain (Tech-media-tainment; Feb. 22, 2012)

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