The Almanac (pseudohistorian) wrote,
The Almanac

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It's been a while since I've talked at all about copyright issues with fictional franchises around here--whether it was related to the legal status of fan fiction or more ambiguous media tie-ins--but enough has been going on in that realm lately that it seems worth geeking out about once more.

First off, the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued Miramax in May over the film Mr Holmes (which was released in the United Kingdom last month and opened in North America a couple of weeks ago), with that notoriously litigious group finding themselves running out of legal options as more and more of the Sherlock Holmes canon falls into the public domain worldwide...

Mr Holmes stars Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old and long-since-retired Sherlock Holmes, based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. (In a nice metafictional twist, McKellen's Holmes goes at one point to see a Sherlock Holmes movie in which "he" is played by Nicholas Rowe, the star of Young Sherlock Holmes.) The complaint (you can read it at the link above) alleges that the novel and film infringe on specific elements found in the ten Sherlock Holmes stories still under US copyright protection--a tactic used after a previous lawsuit between the estate and Sherlockian scholar and publisher Leslie Klinger found that their other claims over the Sherlock Holmes canon had no basis in the United States. (The entire canon has been in the public domain in the UK for some time.) This copyright and trademark lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction on the film (something I don't think is ever going to happen), but if you're still curious to know more, you can also find more general details in the Forbes article "The Strange Case of Mr Holmes vs US Copyright Law."

If the copyright shenanigans around one iconic British character are already enough to keep me interested, the current situation with James Bond is even more intriguing--especially since it comes with a Canadian twist. Copyright law on literary works in Canada still uses the Berne Convention standard, so all of Ian Fleming's works entered the public domain as of January 1...but only in Canada and a few other countries sticking to that standard. Although the situation in the States is somewhat more complicated, and some people are worried that Canada will adopt the longer US standard for free trade purposes, the genie is out of the Aston Martin when it comes to Bond.

Many were quick to speculate on what could be done with this new legal status while only using elements from Fleming's literary version of James Bond (as opposed to anything from the movies, for instance), but editors Madeline Ashby and David Nickle took advantage immediately and started putting together what would evolve into the upcoming anthology Licence Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond, to be published (as you can tell by the nature of that particular link) in Canada alone. This sort of thing is only going to become more common around the world over time, unless those fears about copyright extension come to pass...

...but with even the copyright status of "Happy Birthday" finally leaning towards public domain, famous works and the fictional characters therein can't stay out of the general public's hands forever.
Tags: copyright, metafiction
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