The New York Times has an interesting story on the tangled copyright history of the Sherlock Holmes stories. It boils down to the fact that the rights have passed through so many sets of heirs, with one widow and one divorcee involved, that there is some disagreement as to who actually owns them.
For a short time, Holmes was out of copyright—then a Conan Doyle heir recovered the rights under the Copyright Act of 1976. According to a literary agent for the Conan Doyle estate, Holmes remains under copyright protection until 2023.
Slightly ominous is this paragraph:
The estate remains mum about its plans for the time Sherlock Holmes falls into the American public domain, or whether it might try to extend the copyrights. But Mr. Lellenberg said the group pays careful attention to the management of other venerable pop-cultural properties: the Walt Disney Company, which is preparing to celebrate the 82nd birthday of Mickey Mouse, has “always been at the leading edge” of intellectual property law, he said. And he noted that the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the adventure writer who created Tarzan and John Carter of Mars (each 98), has “generally been the quickest off the mark to ensure and enhance protection for its works and characters.”
I had thought that if the Sonny Bono act had not extended the copyrights, Holmes should have passed into the public domain by now. The only Holmes book still under copyright in the USA as far as I know is the very last short story collection, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which was published after the Bono-imposed 1923 cut-off date. (All earlier Holmes works can be downloaded as e-books here, among other places.)
If that is the case, shouldn’t people be able to create derivative works based on any Holmes works that came before with impunity, as long as they don’t use anything from the last book? If not, then why is Disney so worried about losing one single Mickey Mouse animation to the public domain?