Sherlock Holmes Enters The Public Domain And George R.R. Martin Does A Happy Dance: Why Longer Copyrights Might Be Better For Artists


Eight months ago, I wrote this article describing why it would be a good thing if Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain. The premise of the article was that long-living copyrights are harmful to artists; they stifle innovation and creativity and incentivize large copyright owners to pursue legal action against even the most minimal use of their copyright. By shortening the copyright lifespan, the monetary value of  properties like Sherlock, would drop, making them less appealing and thus motivating artists to create new works instead. Simultaneously, copyright lawsuits against infringers would drop, keeping smaller independent artists out of court.

Well, last week I got my wish. According to a federal judge in Illinois, Sherlock Holmes and all elements of his character created prior to 1922 are now in the public domain, which means that anyone in the U.S. (but not the U.K.) can write their own personal Sherlock fanfic and profit from it without paying the Conan Doyle estate it's traditionally hefty fee. So, happy Greg, right? Well maybe not. A strange thing happened on the way to victory... I sort of changed my mind.

George R.R. Martin's hatred of fan fiction had something to do with it. In a recent interview, Martin said this in response to a question about his refusal to license Game of Thrones for use in fan fiction:

 [O]ne thing that history has shown us is eventually these literary rights pass to grandchildren or collateral descendents, or people who didn't actually know the writer and don't care about his wishes. It's just a cash cow to them. And then we get abominations to my mind like Scarlet, the Gone with the Wind sequel. 

I've always admired Tolkien and his immense influence on fantasy.  Although I've never met the man, I admire Christopher Tolkien, his son, who has been the guardian of Tolkien's estate who has never allowed that. I'm sure there are publishers waiting in the wings with giant bags of money just waiting for someone to say, "Yes, go ahead, let's write Sauron Strikes Back." I hope I never see Sauron Strikes Back written by some third-rate writer who leaps at the opportunity.

His reasoning makes sense to anyone who has created something worth stealing: he wants to protect the integrity of his creation. Which is pretty easy while he's alive. He can approve or deny any licensing request that he thinks might dishonor the work. But what about after he dies? How do you ensure that the people who become guardians of GoT can protect it the way he wants? Part of the answer, I think, is to make copyrights indefinite, preventing them from entering the public domain. This would effectively turn them into business assets (much like trademarks). For some artists, this could be beneficial.

For the record, I still believe it's important to prevent unnecessary infringement lawsuits and spur innovation - remember, the Constitution supports the protection of copyright for the public good, not just for personal financial gain. For those reasons, I would still support shortening copyright durations. But Martin's words made it clear to me that these aren't the only issues that matter. Isn't artistic integrity something the law should be protecting as well? After all, artists don't just create for the money or recognition. They are driven to create because they have something to say. If an artist can protect the integrity of the work over time, that gives the work greater meaning. Conversely, if copyrights are shortened, the meaning behind the work suffers. For Martin, shorter copyrights would mean those "third-rate writers" would be granted unfettered access to GoT that much sooner. You can see how unappealing that would be for him.

Martin's not alone either. In the late 90's, Disney was on the verge of losing the rights to some of Mickey Mouse's earliest films. In order to prevent them from entering the public domain, Disney lobbied Congress to extend copyright durations. Their efforts paid off in 1998 when Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (referred to derogatorily as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act), which extended the lifespan of all copyrights in the process: individual copyrights were lengthened from life of the author plus 50 to life plus 70, while works of corporate authorship were extended from 75 to 120 years. Time, however, catches us all, and Disney's copyrights will start expiring as early as 2017, so you can bet good money that they'll put the full-court press on Congress to extend copyright terms again. As long as Disney stands to lose its most valuable commercial asset, copyright terms will continue to grow. And the longer Disney has the power to lobby, the more likely copyrights will eventually gain perpetual life. In the not too distant future, Disney may have the right to Mickey Mouse in perpetuity.

But is this inherently a bad thing? I'm not so sure. There are numerous examples of long-term guardianships protecting the integrity of their properties. There's Christopher Tolkien refusing the license any of his father's work for film or television (the elder Tolkien sold the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings back in 1969). There's the Conan Doyle estate ensuring that all filmic versions of Sherlock meet the owners' high standards. There's also the Broccoli family maintaining a tight control over the James Bond film franchise for the last 50 years. Say what you will about the quality of any individual work, but no one could argue that these owners have anything less than the integrity of the source material at heart.

In any legislation there are trade-offs, with different issues being important to different stakeholders. For some, protection against big corporations is the most salient issue; shorter copyrights make sense for those people. But for someone like Martin, who has created a sprawling world that is financially viable and popular enough to have imitators, it makes sense for the law to protect the quality of the work. That could mean Martin and his heirs own GoT forever.

So maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about the value of longer copyrights. But no matter what, this isn't an issue that can be settled in a single blog post by lil ol' me.

Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater: Changing Laws, The "I Have A Dream" Speech, And Copyright Policy


This Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. If you're like me, then you've probably seen snippets of that speech a hundred times, but never seen the full unedited version. That's because the speech is protected under copyright law until 2038, and anyone who copies, distributes, shares, or posts a video of the speech online will be violating copyright law and will legally owe restitution to the video's owner... Sony.* [Like when Sony ordered advocacy group Fight For The Future to remove the video from its website.]

Am I the only who thinks this is terrible? What kind of policy allows a major corporation to sue someone who wants to share with others THE ICONIC CIVIL RIGHTS MOMENT OF OUR TIME? Who is this policy protecting?

You may have noticed that I'm pretty vocal when I think changes should be made to U.S. policy, specifically copyright law. As a result, I've been accused several times of pursuing a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" agenda. But that's not really accurate since I've never called for scrapping laws wholesale. I have, on the other hand, advocated for revising laws that don't work as intended. I personally see advocating for better and smarter laws as my duty, not just as a lawyer, but as an American citizen (which, not so ironically, was kind of the point of Dr. King's speech).

And what's wrong with supporting change anyway? Not to be overly dramatic here, but America was founded on this whole idea of "it's not working out, so let's do something better." We went to war with England because we didn't like the way they governed us. We constructed a republican system of government that permits us to remove and replace politicians we don't like. We gave Congress the power to revise, update, and repeal laws because we recognized that people are imperfect and they will pass imperfect laws. When a law doesn't achieve its goal, it should absolutely be amended. The U.S. Copyright Act alone has been amended at least 10 times since 1790.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating: copyright law wasn't created solely for the purpose of rewarding the artist. It was also designed to foster originality and ingenuity for the betterment of society (the founding fathers didn't measure capitalist success purely through personal wealth. Community prosperity was also a driving factor) and to shield artists from theft. It wasn't intended to be used as a weapon to attack others. Which is why the problem isn't that Sony owns the copyright to Dr. King's speech; the problem is what it can do to harm individuals who wish to share it. Simply put, Sony has the muscle and will to litigate against anyone who posts the video, regardless of the intent of the individual or their ability to fight back. And I don't think that's right.

In that spirit, here are two ideas that I think will be effective in revamping copyright law to better serve the American people.

  1. Shorten the term limits on copyrights. Yeah, I've talked about this a lot. That just shows you how much I care about this issue. Copyright law was not designed to allow copyright owners to make money off a work in perpetuity. In fact, under the Copyright Act of 1790, copyright terms were set by the founders for a mere 14 years, specifically to prevent perpetual ownership. By shortening copyright terms, major corporate copyright owners such as Sony won't be able to bully individuals when they share something as innocuous and educational as Dr. King's speech. You can read a more complete take on that here.
  2. Create exemptions in our copyright laws for works that hold special historical significance. The "I Have A Dream" speech literally changed lives and shaped events in the 20th Century. Yet under our current copyright law, it's treated like every other work of artistic expression. A work of such historic stature shouldn't be owned by any one entity. It belongs to all Americans in the same way the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation do and it should be available to everyone, free of charge.

Change is in our national DNA. History has borne that out repeatedly, so why fight it? Dr. King believed that. Who are we to assume differently?


* Dr. King himself owned the copyright and even sued to prevent unlawful reproductions of the speech so that he could distribute profits from it to civil rights causes. After his death, the copyright passed to his family, who sold the copyright to EMI in 2009. EMI was purchased by Sony in 2011.

Sony Wins "Midnight in Paris" Lawsuit, Inadvertently Proves My Case About Copyright Duration

Midnight-in-Paris"The court has viewed Woody Allen’s movie, 'Midnight in Paris,' read the book, 'Requiem for a Nun,' and is thankful that the parties did not ask the court to compare 'The Sound and The Fury' with 'Sharknado.'" - District Court Judge Michael P. Mills


Last October, William Faulkner's estate sued Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of the hit Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, claiming that a line used by Owen Wilson's character in the film was pulled straight from Faulkner's 1950 novel Requiem for a Nun without permission from the estate.  Such a use, the estate argued, constituted both copyright and trademark infringement.

Just for comparison's sake, here's the line from the book: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

And here's the line from the film, said by Owen Wilson's character Gil Pender: "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past.  You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party."

When I heard about the lawsuit, I rolled my eyes.  "This is exactly the kind of frivolous lawsuit that makes people hate lawyers," I groused to my wife.  The line was so minimal and seemed like a clear-cut case of fair use.  The suit didn't seem like a credible attempt to protect Faulkner's legacy; it looked like a cynical ploy designed to cash in on a box-office hit.  Judge Mills, as evidenced by the above quote, agreed.  In an opinion issued yesterday, he dismissed the Faulkner case against Sony, finding that film's use of the Faulkner quote fell within the fair use exception to copyright infringement.

But the content of the opinion interests me less than what this case means to copyright policy.  Because whether Judge Mills intended it or not, the dismissal speaks volumes about a problem with the way this country shields copyright holders from piracy.  Namely, that copyrights are allowed to live for too long and that results in too many lawsuits.

Back in April, I wrote this Sherlock Holmes piece discussing why the current scheme of copyright duration should be changed to better serve the current copyright landscape. Right now, any work of art fixed in a tangible medium is protected by U.S. Copyright Law for the life of the author plus 70 years.  I argued that allowing copyrights to last for so long actually stifles creativity and innovation in the following ways:

  1. Artists are less incentivized to create new works because of the looming spectre of legal action
  2. Owners of profitable copyrights like Sherlock are less incentivized to create new works of art as long as they can continue to profit from those copyrights
  3. Copyright owners like the Faulkner estate are incentivized to pursue legal action against even the most minimal use of their copyright because the length of the copyright's life acts as a mandate to keep the work protected at all costs

And that's exactly what happened here.  Under our current copyright law, Requiem for a Nun is still protected 62 years after publishing and 50 years after the death of the novel's author.  It will continue to be protected until 2032.  This permits the descendants of the author to pursue all uses of that work anytime they see green and to concoct unreasonable arguments in defense of that green (the Faulkner estate, as part of its now dismissed trademark claim, argued that the use of William Faulkner's name in the film is likely to deceive the audience into believing that an affiliation exists between Faulkner and Sony).  And while the verdict in this case was proper, it won't be the last time this happens.

A shorter copyright duration is better because it allows the author and his immediate family to profit from his creation, but it also devalues the property after the author's death by coming into the public domain sooner.  And that's a good thing.  If Faulkner is no longer profitable, then that frees up people to use his characters in new and interesting ways, while also incentivizing the estate to create something new.  Someone argued with me once, claiming that letting the work into the public domain would open it to bastardization, copying, and retread.   But I fail to see how that's a bad thing.  If a filmmaker wants to stage a remake of Sherlock Holmes starring Justin Bieber as Sherlock and Chester Cheetah as Watson, well sure that will probably suck big time, but that doesn't diminish Conan Doyle's original writings.  Those remain untouched and intact.  And anyway, the integrity and profitability of a work are not often related.  If they were, the Broccolis would never have greenlit a James Bond movie where Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist.

The purpose of copyright protection isn't to provide a golden parachute for the author and his beneficiaries until the end of time.  It's mean to foster originality and ingenuity for the betterment of society.  Hell, even the head of the Copyright Office, Maria Pallante, suggests shortening the duration of copyright to life of the author plus 50 years.

The point is, until we revamp our copyright law to stop favoring the corporate copyright holders, we're going to continue seeing lawsuits like Faulkner v. Sony any time a large copyright owner sees a potential conflict with its interest.  When I look at Judge Mills' decision, I don't see a single judge smacking a plaintiff for filing a frivolous lawsuit.  I see an indictment of a system that allows the suit to be brought in the first place.