Loretta Ross

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Tag: Social Commentary

Free Sherlock

Today the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling on Klinger v. The Conan Doyle Estate regarding the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as characters.  If you haven’t been following this (as, indeed, I had not been), the basics of the suit are as follows:  Leslie Klinger edited an anthology of stories called A Study In Sherlock, inspired by the canon works (the original novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  The Conan Doyle Estate strong-armed his publisher into paying them a licensing fee to use the characters.  When Klinger tried to publish a sequel with a different publisher, the estate again approached them demanding payment of their fee and threatening them with legal repercussions if they didn’t pay.  As a result, the publisher refused to publish the work unless Klinger obtained a license.  Rather than pay for a license, Klinger filed a suit seeking a declaratory judgement stating that he is free to use the characters because they are no longer under copyright and are thus in the public domain.

Prior to 1998 the length of copyright protection was 75 years from the date of publication.  In 1998 that was extended, for old works still under copyright, to 95 years from the date of publication.  1998 – 75 = 1923, so anything written before 1923 was already out of copyright and not affected by the new law.  Under current copyright law, new works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.

The Sherlock Holmes canon consists of four novels and fifty-six short stories.  All four of the novels and forty-six of the stories were published before 1923, the earliest being in 1887.  Ten of the stories were published between 1923 and 1927 and are still in copyright, which was the basis for the Conan Doyle Estate’s claim to ownership of the characters.

The court’s ruling is available here and is well worth reading.  They found that characters cannot be copyrighted except as part of a published work.  Thus, Sherlock and Watson became part of the public domain when the first literary piece depicting them went out of copyright.  Any original elements of their characters that didn’t appear until the later stories are still under copyright until the story they appeared in enters the public domain.

The thing that stood out to me most, reading about this case, was one of the arguments that the estate used to try to persuade the court that they should extend their copyright protection beyond that set out in the law.  I’m going to quote directly from the decision here:

“Lacking any ground known to American law for asserting post-expiration copyright protection of Holmes and Watson in pre-1923 stories and novels going back to 1887, the estate argues that creativity will be discouraged if we don’t allow such an extension. It may take a long time for an author to perfect a character or other expressive element that first appeared in his early work. If he loses copyright on the original character, his incentive to improve the character in future work may be diminished because he’ll be competing with copiers, such as the authors whom Klinger wishes to anthologize.”

So, in other words, I might not be inspired to keep writing about my characters SEVENTY YEARS AFTER I DIE?

I wonder what Sherlock would make of that argument?



A Story I Never Intended To Tell

Earlier tonight I was talking about music with a friend on Twitter and she mentioned the song “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” by Air Supply.  It is a beautiful song, but it’s one I rarely listen to, as it brings back memories more bitter than sweet.  The incident that precipitated those memories is one that I’ve never really discussed with anyone.  What happened then, though, is relevant to what’s going on in the world today.  So I decided, nearly thirty years on, maybe it’s time to tell this story.


In order to understand what I’m going to tell you, you have to know that I was the quintessential awkward teenager.  I was fat, for one thing.  Boys I grew up with called me “Tubby” and “Lardo” and “Hurricane Hilda.” A chipped front tooth made me reluctant to open my mouth, and my clothes were all either homemade or hand-me-downs that were years out of fashion.  I was so shy when I entered high school that for the first two years I walked the halls with my eyes on the floor and never even dared speak to the girls I shared a lunch table with every day.


Eventually I got involved in clubs and school activities and began to open up.  By the start of my senior year I was a member of the drama club and had gotten small parts in a couple of plays.  It was just after the start of that school year that a new boy, whom I shall call Steve (not his name) transferred to our school.


Steve was everything I was not — charming, funny, witty and outgoing with an open, fun-loving personality that quickly made him one of the most popular boys in our class.  To my great surprise, we hit it off immediately.  We spent all our spare time together, talking about books and art and music. He was the first person I knew who had their own computer and he invited me to his house to see it and used it to make me pictures. He loved science and devoted hours trying to explain to me what he was studying and where he wanted to go with it.  He walked between classes with me and sat with me at lunch and in a crowd he always sought me out.


I fell in love.


By the time spring rolled around people had begun to assume we were a couple.  We were doing “Grease” for the spring musical that year and Steve and I both had parts — not opposite one another.  I don’t remember the characters’ names anymore (“Grease” is another bittersweet memory and a movie I will never watch again) but he was the head Pink Lady’s boyfriend and I (of course) was the fat chick.  After play practice ended, though, we would walk out into the dark parking lot together and sit for hours on the trunk of his car.  He’d point out the features of the night sky, individual stars and constellations and comets and satellites.  And he’d sing to me, his voice rising and falling on the soft spring night.  He liked to sing Air Supply.  “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All.”


One night, though, near the end of the year, he came out looking very serious and said that he needed to talk to me.  I thought he was going to ask me to the senior prom. Instead, he told me that he’d heard I had a crush on him.  He said he didn’t like me that way — that he didn’t know where I’d ever gotten the idea that he might.  Really, he just wanted to be friends.


To say that I was devastated sounds melodramatic and silly, but honestly I think that, if anything, it’s an understatement.  I was embarrassed and humiliated and I felt stupid and ashamed.  How could I have ever thought that someone like that would ever be attracted to someone like me?  It was, I decided, a mistake that I would not make again.  Years passed before I dared to let a man know I was interested in him and, in truth, though I’ve dated from time to time, to this day I’ve never been involved in a serious, committed relationship.


Steve and I avoided one another for the rest of the school year, but the following summer we found ourselves working the same summer job and a shadow of our old friendship reasserted itself.  It was at some point during the course of that summer that he shyly and reluctantly admitted to me that he was gay. A couple of years later he even asked me to marry him, so he’d have someone to father children with and to make it easier for him to hide his sexual orientation from the world.  I declined of course.  I thought he was joking, actually, and my refusal was harsher than it would have otherwise been.  It must have hurt his feelings, because he left shortly thereafter and I never saw or heard from him again.


Looking back through the lens that decades of experience have given me, I realize now that I was not stupid and I had nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.  Singing love songs to someone under the stars is romancing them, and my conclusions were entirely justified.  I understand now what he was doing.  He was caught in a world that considered people with his needs and desires aberrant — dirty and perverted.  And he was considering trying to deny his own nature, play the game, fit in and act like the “normal” heterosexual male that he was not.  I don’t fault him for that  — each in our own way, we were both lost teenagers trying to find our places in the world.  And as badly as his rejection hurt at the time, I’m terribly, terribly grateful that he did not continue the charade.  I can’t imagine anything good would have come of it, and I don’t believe that, at that time, I had the strength of character to survive what would have followed.


There are many reasons why I support gay rights, but this is the deepest and most personal.  Because I, an unremarkable straight person, have also been hurt by society’s inane prejudices.  My life would have been so much easier if Steve had felt comfortable, right from the beginning, simply being himself and admitting to the world who and what he was.  I know that the last thing that awkward, seventeen-year-old me needed was a make believe sweetheart.  But I could have really used a good friend.


Gay people are gay because they go are. You cannot dictate desire nor legislate the needs of the soul.  As Emily Dickinson said, “The heart wants what it wants”. Yes, there are dark desires that must be quelled by laws — the desire of those who would damage children, for example, or take by force that which is not given freely.  But the desire of two consenting adults to love on another does no one any conceivable harm.  Trying to suppress that love not only damns the lovers, but sends ripples all throughout our society.  Those ripples have the potential to create an undertow capable of swamping us all.

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