WRITERS: WHEN IS YOUR BOOK NO LONGER YOURS?
The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been freaking out for several years. In the Unite States, Sherlock Holmes is not considered public domain. Based on the dates they published, all of the books are public domain, except one, the last one. The estate says that is sufficient to tie up the copyright for all the Holmes works. Their theory is that the books and stories are not separate, distinct entities. Holmes and Watson were created in the very first story and grew and developed all the way through all the stories. That evolution runs through the public and private domain stuff and you can’t separate the two. Ergo, says the Doyle estate, it should all be copyrighted. Never mind that when that last story came out, 1927, copyright law said the longest time copyright protection could run was fifty-six years.
Disney has been freaking similarly. In 1998, the entertainment industry lobbied for and got Congress to extend copyright protection to all published works by an extra 20 years. The big news at the time was that this bought Disney another twenty years before their mascot, Mickey Mouse, fell into the public domain because the copyright on Mickey’s debut film in “Steamboat Willie” was due to expire.
As a reader and a writer, I’m of two minds about copyright. As a writer who strives (hopes? dreams? pines?) for a steady, paying, writing income, I’m ALL FOR HOLDING ONTO A COPYRIGHT AS LONG AS I CAN. BACK OFF! THAT’S MY KIDS’ INHERITENCE, DAMN YOU!
On the other hand, as a lover of the written word, I’m all for getting those words out there where the most people can access them at the lowest cost. Why should mega-corporations reap profits long after that writer is dead? Why shouldn’t I get a part of that?
Money stuff aside, I’m a little squeamish, as a writer about THE PUBLIC DOMAIN out of fear as to what, exactly, the carnivores out there hiding in the public domain bushes waiting to pounce on and eviscerate my precious work. No wonder the Doyle estate is peeing themselves. They’re scared of the inevitable plot of “Smurfs 3: Elementary, my dear Smurfette”.
On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is such a great character, just think what some other great writer could do with it. Look at what Stephen Moffat has done with the excellent “Sherlock” series on the BBC, a modern retelling of the Holmes and Watson adventures. If more people could access those characters, the possibilities are limitless.
A lot of it could be crap. A lot of it could be wretchedly offensive. But is that a reason to withhold it?
It’s this last bit that also makes me nervous about when estates commission other authors to write new books in long established series where the original authors have died. They did it with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books. The Godfather. The James Bond novels too. I haven’t read any of them. They may be great, but I’m scared.
Michael Chabon wrote a novel called “The Final Solution” which is clearly about an elderly, retired Holmes, though he’s never mentioned by name. The character stuff in the book is interesting, but the plot…well, it just isn’t a Holmes novel.
“Star Trek Into Darkness”, the second installment in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise hits all the right character notes. They’ve got Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest nailed. But…the plot just isn’t there.
Ultimately, you can’t beat the original. Of anything. You can imitate. You can copy. But you can never reproduce.
The question is do you have the right to?
And if you do, should you?