Before reading Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, I already had an interest in—if not very comprehensive knowledge of—copyright law. Lessig’s book reminded me of a recent(ish) legal case involving late-Victorian literature that I followed and which prompted me to think about the ways in which ideas of copyright law and remix culture are actually framed in public discourse.
About a year ago, Leslie S. Klinger, leading Sherlock Holmes expert and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (a three-volume behemoth that took up quite a bit of my savings—and now quite a bit of my desk) filed a civil complaint against the Arthur Conan Doyle estate regarding the copyright status of the author’s most famous stories. Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times gave a fairly thorough summary of the proceedings in her 15 February 2013 blog post, but the main gist is that Klinger protested against what he saw as unfair licensing fees for the (“remixed”?) versions of Doyle’s characters featured in “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of Holmesian stories he edited. Klinger argued that “since the main characters and elements of their story derived from materials published before Jan. 1, 1923,” they were no longer under the jurisdiction of U. S. copyright law, and his “complaint asks that the court make a declaratory judgment establishing that the basic ‘Sherlock Holmes story elements’ are in the public domain” (Schuessler). Free-Sherlock.com, not to mention innumerable fan-sites, blogs, and social media outlets followed the case eagerly, the former providing a blow-by-blow of the actions filed, cases reviewed, and results achieved.
And, lo and behold, less than a year later (27 January 2014), Klinger—at least temporarily—won his case and Sherlock Holmes officially became part of the public domain. But what does that even mean?
In a segment titled “Sherlock’s Expiring Copyright: It’s Public Domain, Dear Watson,” All Things Considered explains that “A federal judge in Chicago recently ruled that the characters in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — excluding any elements introduced in the last 10 stories released in the U.S. after 1922 — now reside in the public domain”—even though those ten stories will be available within a decade. Yet, the matter does not rest there: Doyle estate attorney William Zieske claims that a forthcoming appeal will argue “that a character, particularly a literary character, really does not become entirely formed until the author has put down his pen and finished with the last story that develops that character” (All Things Considered). If we are using Lessig’s terminology, it seems we have reached an impasse (at least in opinion) between RW and RO.
Yet, I can’t help thinking about the dedicated Holmes fan-base, which has existed since the first stories first appeared in the The Strand Magazine in the 1890s and has only grown in size and enthusiasm over the course of the twentieth century, and in the wake of popular twenty-first century adaptations like the superb BBC modernization, Sherlock. In fact, according to Christopher Redmond’s 2009 A Sherlock Holmes Handbook, “Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more films, and been represented by more actors than any other character” (232)–that is saying something, particularly considering the broad range of interpretations, parodies, and spinoffs that have been created in almost every medium possible.
Besides these “official” adaptations, there have also been a broad range of fan-created interpretations that exist largely online (art community and forum deviantART seems to be a major breeding ground). Popular iterations include slash pairing Johnlock, gender-swapped version Femlock (with some crossover to the previous iteration), and the ever-popular turn-human-characters-into-some-sort-of-adorable-animal (Sherlock ponies are a thing).
Often, these “remixes” are artistic/aesthetic, but there’s also plenty of fan fiction, video mash-ups, and cosplay that supplement and fuel these offshoots. Gregg Gillis’ characterization of what he does with music being “more like a game and less like a product” (15) applies here–it’s probably safe to assume that most people in this particular fandom are simply engaging in these various ways out of love rather than with the desire to “publish” or profit from their “products” outside of sharing it with other fans. The “game” is indeed afoot.
What then do we make of this sort of unofficial “remixing,” particularly in the context of the still-raging debates about what use of texts/characters is allowed in legal terms, as well by the unspoken rules of fan-created media?
(A disclaimer: my appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes canon has never prompted me to venture into the realm of creating fan art, fan fiction, or “product” of any kind–I just observe many of these iterations with some amuse-/bemusement.)