I’ve been on a bit of a Sherlock Holmes kick lately, rewatching the Jeremy Brett adaptations from my childhood (which are streaming on Netflix now). As Wikipedia tells us, Brett is considered “the definitive Holmes of his era”, and I am taking a great delight in his outbursts and moods — gestures that Brett introduced to the re-written scripts but that have now become part of the Holmesian cultural canon. He smokes, he sulks, and he frightens me more now as a grown woman able to understand the nuance of his male power and precision than he ever did when I was a child and delighted in Victoriana and late nights on PBS.
I have also been reading lately the Mary Russell novels, by Laurie King, who is a popular mystery writer that I greatly admire for her erudition and capture of hard female characters. The Mary Russell books are pure pulp, though, but in a totally enjoyable way. They are also the single best argument for limited copyright terms and the public domain that I’ve stumbled over in recent months.
You see, the books are remixed Sherlock Holmes stories — Sherlock as imagined in late middle age, with a new spunky female sidekick, who happens to be an Oxford academic and all-around firebrand. They’re fun and sly; a perfect Christmas-break read, which is exactly what I did. But if copyright terms had been extended for the Victorians too, such remixed stories would not be legal; they’d be relegated to the murky, somewhat disreputable area internet fanfiction is relegated to now. Instead, these books were proudly published starting in the mid-90s by one of the big publishing houses, and were written by an author who won awards for her reimaginings.
Never mind my questionable reading tastes. This is what it means to have a cultural commons — having touchstones of literature and film and now internet and video that are shared reference points, that gain meaning in the retelling and reimagining, like the central and legendary figure of Sherlock Holmes — now he has Basil Rathbone’s features, now he has Jeremy Brett’s. Copyright has a place, no doubt. But copyright that seeks to constrain the cultural imagination — because remember, the concept of copyright as we have it today in the U.S. covers both film adaptations and remixed stories like King’s, and covers such things for a term that is now long enough that had it been in effect in the UK at the time, some of the Sherlock stories would still be in copyright today — such constraints go beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in a society that seeks to share and build its cultural heritage. These touchstones are, for many intents and purposes, the building blocks of shared culture itself.
And so this is why we must expand the notion of fair use, limit copyright terms and extensions, and expand remix protections. It is why we should promote free licenses as an obvious and natural way to share one’s work. Copyright has a place; I don’t deny it. But it also must have checks and balances, allowances for the characters that sniff around the margins of our imaginations and make us who we are (there is a straight line from the deerstalker’ed Sherlock to the place modern forensics has in our culture) — characters which once were serialized in The Strand and now might be serialized on YouTube.
It is winter in Northern California, which means that it is densely foggy and chill outside, which has been reminding me of the moor in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” — a story I’ve seen in two versions this week (The Moor by Laurie King, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as adapted by Granada). I’m curled up inside, eating soup and getting the shivers from one of my favorite old stories. These are the pleasures of nothing less than civilization, and we must value them as we do our shared culture — by both protecting and sharing our touchstones, making them an essential part of our childhoods and friendships, of the stories we tell ourselves and can also tell to others.