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.