Estate of Master Sleuth's Creator Ordered to Pay Up

A follow up to the story about the author who won his battle to have the character of Sherlock Holmes declared a public domain property.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to pay the plaintiff's legal fees of more than $30,000.  Appellate Judge Richard Posner reasoned that it was the only way to make a successful copyright challenge a true success.

The Estate had been charging people a fee to utilize the Holmes and Dr. Watson characters, despite the fact that they were created in the 19th century, well beyond the oldest date in which a copyright remains current.  The probable reason that hasn't been challenged before is that it costs much more to bring the case to court than to just pay the fee.  (It's the old "Pay the man the two dollars" philosophy.)

However, now that legal fees were assessed against the Estate as the losing litigant, it might open the door to other legal challenges of debatable copyright claims.

Anyone else thinking about that 19th century cash cow song, "Happy Birthday to You"?

Monkey Business Over Copyright

Yet another dispute over copyright ownership of a photograph arises -- only, this time, the photog is a monkey.

British photographer David Slater had his camera swiped by a crested black macaque that then went about snapping several photos with the equipment.  Among the photos was a "selfie" of the monkey's face appearing to be grinning at the camera.  That snapshot has since gone viral on the Internet.

That's good for Mr. Slater, right?  Not so, says he.  The image is being distributed as a public domain photo for free on the Wikimedia Commons website.  So Mr. Slater's not making any money on that distribution, and he's demanded that the images be taken down because, as he sees it, the distribution infringes his copyright on the photos.

But wait, responds a disagreeing Wikimedia.  It says Mr. Slater isn't the author of the photos.  The monkey actually took the shots and, therefore, Wikimedia claims the monkey is the actual author as defined by the copyright laws.  However, since an animal can't own a copyright, Wikimedia says that puts the photos squarely in the realm of the public domain.

Mr. Slater and Wikimedia are definitely at odds over this one, and it could result in a lawsuit.  Don't expect the monkey to be called as a witness.

7th Circuit Upholds the Public Domain of Holmes

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a lower court's ruling that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson -- two of literature's most iconic and enduring fictional crime fighters -- are in the public domain, and the estate of their creator cannot legally claim the exclusive licensing rights to them.

As was blogged on an earlier date, the case came up as a result of the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle demanding licensing fees from a contemporary author of a book featuring new stories involving Holmes and Watson.  The author, Leslie Klinger, challenged the estate in federal court, claiming the characters were creations of the 19th century, and any copyright on them long since expired.  The lower court ruled in Mr. Klinger's favor, but the estate appealed the decision.

In its opinion, the 7th Circuit agreed that the copyrights on the characters of Holmes and Watson exist no more.  Just as I opined in my earlier blog post, the court noted that it could not accept the estate's claim that stories written by A.C. Doyle after 1922 reinvigorated the copyright on the characters and started the clock ticking all over again.  If that were the case, then characters' copyrights could be maintained in perpetuity simply by writing a new story every so many years.  And that's not what Congress intended by creating a limited copyright duration.

Bye-Bye to D.C.'s Oldest Private Art Gallery

The Corcoran Gallery of Art has been around since 1869 and claims to be Washington, D.C.'s oldest private art gallery.  But its independence is likely coming to an end as it has come to an agreement to merge its collection and affiliated school with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.

Court approval is necessary because the agreement isn't exactly in keeping with the Corcoran's charter.  Therefore, to attain approval, a court will have to issue what's called a "cy pres" ruling.  That is, it is basically being asked to rule that the agreement comes as close to attaining the charter's mission as is possible under the circumstances.

According to the Washington Post, financial troubles pushed the Corcoran's board to this decision.

Is That Really the Fake You Bought?

An interesting legal issue arose in a New York court handling a lawsuit in which an art collector sued over the purchase of paintings he now alleges are fakes.

According to the Art Newspaper, the court ruled against the plaintiff based on a "chain of custody" question.  In the judge's mind, the collector couldn't prove that the fakes he possessed were, in fact, forgeries that the defendant sold to him.  In other words, unless you can prove through expert testimony that the fakes are the exact same items as you purchased, you might not be able to prove the seller defrauded you.  After all, reasoned the court, who knows when the forgery actually occurred?