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Judge Posner orders estate to pay up over Sherlock Holmes copyright “extortion”

One of the country’s most well-known judges has taken the Arthur Conan Doyle estate to task for shaking down publishers, and for threatening to collude with distributors like Amazon(s AMZN) and Barnes & Noble(s BKS) to wring licensing revenue for Sherlock Holmes works that are clearly in the public domain.

In a ruling issued Monday in Chicago, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner ordered the Doyle estate to pay $30,679.93 in legal fees to Leslie Klinger, an author and editor who crushed the estate’s demands for licensing fees on a Sherlock Holmes anthology composed of stories written before 1923.

Posner’s order, which comes after the court in June rejected the estate’s unusual theory to expand copyright protection in the Holmes character, also describes the Doyle estate’s demands as “a form of extortion” and praises Klinger for standing up to them. As is customary for Posner, he explains the conflict through the lens of law and economics:

The willingness of someone in Klinger’s position to sue rather than pay Doyle’s estate a modest license fee is important because it injects risk into the estate’s business model. As a result of losing the suit, the estate has lost its claim to own copyrights in characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories published by Arthur Conan Doyle before 1923. For exposing the estate’s unlawful business strategy, Klinger deserves a reward but asks only to break even.

Posner also takes the unusual step of implying that the Doyle estate is violating antitrust law by “asking Amazon and other booksellers to cooperate with it in enforcing its nonexistent copyright claims against Klinger.”

Overall, the case highlights yet again the problem of America’s bloated copyright terms, which often extend to more than a century thanks to a series of extensions by Congress. Such terms do little or nothing to encourage the creation of new work, but do provide an opportunity for copyright opportunists and their bands of lawyers to engage in shakedowns.

Law professor Rebecca Tushnet has more on the ruling, in which she says “Judge Posner throws his usual rhetorical bombs around, this time to the delight of copyright restrictionists.” She’s right about the rhetorical bombs: you can delight in more of them in the ruling below.

Posner Re Sherlock Holmes Estate

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One Response to “Judge Posner orders estate to pay up over Sherlock Holmes copyright “extortion””

  1. copyrightextortion

    Abuse of Copyright Law by Copyright Trolls & Bullies

    There are two types of people in this world.

    1. Those who want to make money by protecting their work legally via copyrights

    2. Those who want to share everything freely, openly and without any type of restrictions

    I, myself belong to the latter type who loves to get educated (and educate others) via free research in libraries or web. If there’s any copyright which I’d want to display on anything I produce or work, it will go something like this;


    My reasoning is simple; For every free input, there should be a free output. However, not everyone will agree as they will come up with a gazillion reasons and logics to make money off of someone’s FREE and public domain information. These money-hogs actually use (or abuse) the copyright law to extort money out of an innocent and a totally naïve researcher via threats to sue in the court of law for the lack of licensing, a modern term of paying to use their information or media. This reminds me of a James Bond movie slogan “License to Kill”. Sometimes, too much law prohibits free spirit of innovation, research or movement of information across different mediums.

    To avoid such copyright trolls, you can always include the following information at the appropriate section of a web-page or a book;

    1. Title of the media or publication
    2. Author’s or Owner’s name
    3. Online Link Where found

    If you have modified their work in any way (provided their license allows you to do that or you got their permission via mail), you can add the word “DERIVATIVE” or “BASED UPON”.

    For example, you need an image of a squirrel in your website or a book. If you use online research tools, you’d see hundreds of images related to squirrel which are licensed by greedy individuals or organizations ready to sue you in the court of law unless you pay their license fee. To filter out such money-hogs, there’s a very useful online tool;

    Checkmark the “use for commercial purposes” and the “modify, adapt, or build upon” boxes. Select the appropriate website where you want to research (Be ware to avoid the ones mentioned below). And enter your search term “Squirrel”. Select the image to extract the reference information as mentioned above before using it.

    In the worst-case scenario, if you mistakenly (or innocently) used someone’s licensed work and they request you to take it down, you can request further information to prove they are the actual owners of that particular item. If they cooperate with you nicely and professionally by providing you with the maximum information possible (which is verifiable), you should honor their request to remove their copyrighted work immediately. Otherwise, there’s almost a quarter million dollars fine for using someone’s copyrighted or licensed work without their consent. However, If that individual or organization starts off by threatening to sue you instead of a nice request, you got a copyright troll on your hands.

    Unless they provide you all of the information (they may provide you part of it, but not all), simply ignore such threats. If such a troll happens to be an attorney, research about their respective bar association license number and file the complaint with the bar’s administration. You can also file the complaint in the respective State’s Attorney General’s office and FTC as well. Trollish attorneys are usually relentless and use all kinds of legal jargon to prove you as some sort of a criminal in their letters by assuming you are guilty of a deliberate and a willful violation of their client’s copyright or license.

    I used to hate the “IGNORE” word. But today, I love it. It pisses the hell out of copyright trolls who are so desperate for our money and attention. There should be a provision to “criminalize” such an abuse of copyright law by trollish organizations, individuals and attorneys. Let’s rally our own Congressmen and Congresswomen to introduce such “Anti-Bullying” and “Anti-Trollish” provisions to the copyright law.