Copyright does not last forever. In the UK, and across Europe, copyright in books, plays, music, works of art and films comes to an end 70 years after the author’s death. After that, work that was once protected by copyright enters the public domain.
For example, the British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930, more than 85 years ago. All of Conan Doyle’s published work is now in the public domain, including his stories from The Strand Magazine featuring perhaps the most famous literary detective the world has ever known. This means his work can be re-used by anyone for free, without having to ask for permission. If you wanted to publish and sell Conan Doyle’s stories, you are free to do so. If you want to make use of his stories in the creation of new, derivative works – such as a film, a graphic novel or a computer game – you are free to do that too. The copyright has expired. The work is in the public domain.
Think of it this way: copyright is like a time capsule. It keeps an author’s work safe and secure for a defined and finite period of time, after which the work becomes free to the world.
Knowing that copyright generally lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years is a useful rule of thumb, although this rule does not apply to all types of copyright work.
Copyright in sound recordings and television broadcasts is not calculated with reference to the life of an author. So, the period of protection granted to broadcasts is simply 50 years from the end of the year of first transmission. Similarly, copyright in sound recordings expires 50 years from the end of the year in which the recording was made, unless the recording is published during that 50 year period in which case the copyright will expire 70 years from the end of the year in which it was published.
Moreover, while a work may be in the public domain, the recording of that work may well be in copyright. For example, Mozart’s music is in the public domain and free for everyone to use it, but the recording of his Symphonies 38-41 made by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and released in 2008 are in copyright, and will remain in copyright until 31 December 2078 (that is, 70 years from the end of the year in which they were first published).
It is also important to bear in mind that different rules on the duration of copyright can apply in different countries. So, the fact that a work is out of copyright somewhere else in the world does not mean that it is out of copyright in the UK. For example, the US and the UK have quite different rules on when works enter the public domain. Any work that was first published in the US before 1923 is in the public domain (in the US); but in the UK plenty of work that was first published before 1923 is still in copyright today. Again: different rules about copyright duration often apply in different countries.
The man in pink is, of course, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. Even before Holmes was released from the time capsule, you probably knew it was him, whether because of his association with Conan Doyle or because you could make out his iconic pipe and deerstalker hat in silhouette.
Interestingly, Holmes is never described as wearing a deerstalker hat, although in The Adventure of Silver Blaze Watson does refer to Holmes wearing an ‘ear-flapped travelling cap’. Sidney Paget (1860-1908), the artist who first illustrated Conan Doyle’s short stories, does depict Holmes wearing a deerstalker in Silver Blaze, but the deerstalker actually only features in eight of Doyle’s short stories as they appeared in The Strand Magazine. By contrast, Holmes is illustrated in 34 other stories wearing different types of hat, whether a silk top hat, a bowler or a fedora.
Certainly, neither Doyle nor Paget ever intended that Holmes should forever be associated with the deerstalker hat. That unshakeable cultural association can be attributed (among other things) to the theatrical adaptation of Holmes by the American actor and playwright William Gillette, to the extremely popular British films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and to the illustrations of Holmes by Frederic Dorr Steele for Collier’s Magazine.
Indeed, the myth and persona of Holmes is defined not just by Doyle or Paget but by the enormous number of adaptations and abridgements, television programmes and films that have contributed to the legacy and enduring appeal of Doyle’s greatest creation. Holmes even features in the Guinness Book of Records as the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. He has been depicted on screen over 250 times, played by more than 75 actors including Sir Christopher Lee, Sir Ian McKellen, Peter Cook and Robert Downey Jr.
Holmes is famous for his superlative powers of deductive reasoning. He is also without rival as a source of inspiration for other creators, whether writers or playwrights, artists or filmmakers.
Having become tired of his famous creation, Conan Doyle decided to kill him off in 1893: in The Final Problem Sherlock plunged to his death at the Reichenbach Falls in a deadly tussle with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. However, public demand was so great, and the money Doyle was offered by his publishers was so lucrative, that Holmes returned from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House first published in October 1903.
The death and resurrection of Holmes has a curious parallel in relation to copyright duration. Although the duration of copyright in most authorial works is life plus 70 years this was not always the case. For instance, when Conan Doyle published the first of his Sherlock Holmes stories, A Scandal in Bohemia (June 1891), the term of protection for literary works was the life of the author plus 7 years (not 70 years!) or 42 years after first publication whichever term was longer. When the 1911 Copyright Act was passed, the copyright in Doyle’s work was extended to life plus 50 years, a term of protection that became standard in the 1956 and 1988 Copyright Acts that followed. But then, in 1995, this was extended once again to life plus 70 years. What this means, however, is that there was a period of time when copyright in Doyle’s work had expired, only to be revived once more … just like Holmes himself.
To explain: Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930. Under both the 1911 and 1956 Copyright Acts the copyright in his work expired on 31 December 1980; on 1 January 1981 the Sherlock Holmes stories entered the public domain. However, because the rules on copyright duration were amended in 1995 so that copyright expires 70 years after an author’s death, rather than 50, the copyright in Doyle’s work was revived for a further five years, only to expire a second time on 31 December 2000. On 1 January 2001 Holmes once again entered the public domain.
As we can see, copyright is not a static thing; its nature and scope can and does change over time. This is just one of the reasons why people often find copyright law confusing.
Once an author’s body of work enters the public domain it is free to be re-used by anyone. If you wanted to publish and sell Conan Doyle’s stories without any alteration you are free to do so. Or, if you wanted to make use of his stories in the creation of new work you can do that too.
In the video, we see Sherlock – now in the public domain – appearing in films, comic books and computer games made by other creators. The work they have created is original to them and protected by copyright, but Conan Doyle’s stories remain in the public domain for others to use. In this way, material in the public domain plays an important role in encouraging and enabling creative activity: it provides inspirational raw material for new generations of creators to use and re-use in expressing themselves and in creating their own original work.
And it is not just individual creators that benefit from the public domain. Many successful media companies routinely benefit from the public domain. For example, the Walt Disney Company has always enjoyed great success in creating highly engaging and lucrative work based on public domain material. Think about many of their classic animated films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio; Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty; Robin Hood and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. All are based on public domain material, whether legends, myths and fairy-tales or other stories no longer in copyright.
In 1986, when Conan Doyle’s work was out of copyright (for the first time) in the UK, Walt Disney released Basil, The Great Mouse Detective, a feature-length animated film based on Basil of Baker Street, a series of novels written by the American children’s writer Eve Titus. Basil of Baker Street was, of course, inspired by and based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
When most people discuss copyright in a work coming to an end, they talk about the work falling into the public domain. The metaphor of ‘the fall’ carries a number of – mostly negative – connotations. The idea of a work falling out of copyright, or falling into the public domain, evokes associations of something falling into disrepair, falling out of favour, a fall from grace, the fall guy, a literary death (at the Reichenbach Falls), and so on.
We prefer to think of the public domain in a more positive light, as a public good: a space in which existing work can be used by anyone, whether as inspiration or as raw material, in expressing themselves freely and creating new, interesting and engaging work. Copyright incentivises creative activity, and rewards authors for their creative efforts. But the public domain also enables creativity, and can add significant value – economic and otherwise – to the efforts and activities of creators and the creative industries. Copyright is extremely important; but so too is the public domain.