Let’s talk copyright

Bringing up copyright around authors can be a bit like opening Pandora’s Box, but let’s have a go, shall we? After all, a renown scholar, author, and lawyer Leslie Klinger has just sued an author’s estate on whether a particular character is in the public domain. The character in question? Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws,” Klinger said. “However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.”

Now before we get all defensive on one side or the other, fan fiction VS. original creators, let’s follow the rights trail. When Conan Doyle died in 1930, he left his literary estate to his three children, Denis, Adrian, and Jean. Denis did quite a bit with the rights before he died, and then Adrian took over, but after that it gets tricky. The rights bounced around a bit after Denis’ widow, Nina, had some financial trouble and lost them to the bank. For about ten years, the rights were held by non-family parties. In the early 1980s, however, the UK put Sherlock & Co., into the public domain, and the US gave preference to family heirs like Jean to reclaim copyrights, and Jean did just that. She had some fun with the rights, allowed some different interpretations like Young Sherlock Holmes, and then bequeathed the rights to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who then sold it back to Conan Doyle cousins (Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.).

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle's death

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death (info from New York Times, 2010.)

So what, exactly, is the Conan Doyle Estate managing now? US rights to 10 stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Everything else was published prior to 1923, so Conan Doyle’s copyrights have expired, leaving the content in the public domain. Now, I haven’t read The Case-Book, but from reading The Adventures and The Memoirs, which are free in the public domain, I have a firm grasp of the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Klinger is compiling a collection of Sherlock stories, inspired by Conan Doyle’s originals. The Estate wants a cut, even though Klinger’s collection excludes any details from The Case-Book.

I make a point to stand up for authors in difficult legal situations, and it’s clear that the author to defend in this case is Klinger. Conan Doyle and his heirs had years of fun and profit from the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, and even Klinger is willingly paying the estate for use of the stories that they still control. But when 50 other stories are sitting in the public domain, inspiring fan fiction and other creative works, it’s clear that the spirit of the Holmes’ character is free.

“This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators,” Klinger added on his Free Sherlock site. “It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Klinger filed his suit last week, and it seems like he’s the right man for the job.

In a broader copyright sense, most authors want their works protected so that they get a piece of the pie when someone reads a copy of their book, decides to make a movie based on the book, or a little figurine of a character. When websites try to distribute content for free, or someone else lays claim to the story and tries to publish it under their name, copyright laws allow the author or their representatives to swoop in and stop those pirates and plagiarizers. And sometimes royalties keep coming in after the author’s death, giving a little monetary boost to kids and grandkids. But from that messy chart up there, you can see why eventually, copyrights must expire, stories must become a part of our general culture, and characters must become free.

Dissecting a Debut: Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

I’d like to introduce what I hope will be a regular feature here at Lamplight & Ink: Dissecting a Debut. These posts will be similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

I’ve been on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately, working my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original serials. So it’s probably no surprise that I was drawn to this particular debut novel, Secret Letters by Leah Scheier, which follows the adventures of Dora Joyce, who has reason to believe that her biological father is the Sherlock Holmes.

Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

Genre: YA Mystery
Page count: 336
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 9781423124054
Pub Date: 6/26/12
Agent: Irene Kraas
In Brief: Dora accompanies her cousin, who is being blackmailed over old love letters, to see Sherlock Holmes about recovering the letters, and secretly about her mother’s dying message that Holmes is Dora’s true father. But when newspapers reveal that Holmes is dead, Dora takes on the case herself alongside her new detective ally, Peter Cartwright, whose kidnapping case is entwined with Dora’s top blackmail suspect.

 

Sherlock Holmes has been re-cast in fiction so many times he’s practically his own genre. To tackle a new perspective of the famous investigator is perhaps not terribly original in concept, but there’s a certain challenge to breaking in fresh ground on a well-traveled path. Many people have written about Sherlock’s lovers, Sherlock in modern day, Sherlock as an animal, but Sherlock’s daughter, as far as I know, is a completely new character.

If I had come across this novel as a submission, that new take on an old favorite would have piqued my interest from the get go. But Scheier has added to that a pretty complex plot, an excellent YA heroine, a bit of budding romance, and some nice historical touches about manners and propriety in nineteenth-century London.

I appreciate how similar the writing form and the detective work are to the original Sherlock series — it’s clear that Scheier did her homework. But she also truly made it her own. Dora’s character is an eerily observant 14-year-old girl who’s not quite ready to take on life but finds herself knee-deep in it, and like most good YA heroines, she makes some mistakes, gets a little ahead of herself, and in the end understands a little more about the world, and what kind of choices her parents had to make. Scheier wrote a really useful post over at First Novels Club on how to create human heroines.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write a short story where Sherlock Holmes must track down a blackmailer to save a lady’s honor just before her wedding, but the reader never meets the lady in question and the blackmailer is murdered by a former victim before Holmes can steal the letters. This may have been Scheier’s inspiration, but with the added kidnapping plot, the antics of the intriguing and slightly mysterious sidekick, Peter Cartwright, and Dora’s efforts to overcome the secrets of her own past, Secret Letters has a life of its own.

From what I can tell, Scheier does not have an MFA, or a long record of short story publications. She’s a pediatrician who wrote book reviews on her LiveJournal and hid a novel under her bed. She mentions that this book went through a lot of edits once she found an editor, because it was initially written as an adult novel, not YA. Notice that she has crafted her website as a place to promote her book; this self-promotion is key for almost any author now, especially a debut author.

Scheier is working on a sequel to Secret Letters, and she just finished another YA novel set in present-day Baltimore. She’s sets a good example on writing fan-fiction and allowing yourself to be inspired by someone else’s work (be it a book, a painting, a poem) while still making it your own. She was flexible with her editor, and the final product was a well-crafted commercial YA novel.