"Sherlock Holmes fanfic authors: You're now free to write your hearts out. The characters, settings and other elements of the detective franchise are officially in the public domain, a federal judge has ruled.
Given that Holmes first appeared in print more than 125 years ago, you'd think that would be obvious. Not according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate, which argues that so long as 10 of his stories remain under copyright, all of the elements therein must also be under copyright, and anyone who uses Holmes, Watson or 221B Baker Street has to pay the estate a licensing fee."
"Judge Rubén Castillo ruled otherwise, saying that every Holmes story that followed the first ought to be considered a derivative based on the original. As far as the court is concerned, Holmes and Watson were fully formed characters by the last page of "A Study in Scarlet." Since anything published before Jan. 1, 1923, is considered public-domain by law — a fact that covers 50 of Conan Doyle's tales d'Sherlock — the editors of the Holmes-derived compendium titled "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes" don't need to pay up."
Wikipedia has a nice list of the ridiculous changes in copyright terms:
Since 1790, Congress has amended US Copyright law several times. Major amendments include:
- Copyright Act of 1790 – established U.S. copyright with term of 14 years with 14-year renewal
- Copyright Act of 1831 – extended the term to 28 years with 14-year renewal
- Copyright Act of 1909 – extended term to 28 years with 28-year renewal
- Universal Copyright Convention – ratified by the U.S. in 1954, and again in 1971, this treaty was developed by UNESCO as an alternative to the Berne Convention
- Copyright Act of 1976 – extended term to either 75 years or life of author plus 50 years (prior to this, "[t]he interim renewal acts of 1962 through 1974 ensured that the copyright in any work in its second term as of September 19, 1962, would not expire before Dec. 31, 1976."); extended federal copyright to unpublished works; preempted state copyright laws; codified much copyright doctrine that had originated in case law
- Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 – established copyrights of U.S. works in Berne Convention countries
- Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 – removed the requirement for renewal
- Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) of 1994 – restored U.S. copyright for certain foreign works
- Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 – extended terms to 95/120 years or life plus 70 years