Grand Rapids lawyer hopes to defend Sherlock Holmes’ copyrights in case before U.S. Supreme Court

 

By Jim Harger | jharger@mlive.com 

on September 22, 2014 at 7:30 AM, updated September 22, 2014 at 7:33 AM

 
 

 

John M. Bursch, a partner with the Grand Rapids law firm of Warner Norcross & Judd, is appealing a copyright case for the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the U.S. Supreme Court.Jim Harger | Mlive Media Group

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Call it the “Case of the Missing Copyright.”

Sherlock Holmes may not be around to solve it, but John J. Bursch, a Grand Rapids lawyer representing the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hopes he can convince the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the copyright surrounding the author’s most famous character.

Bursch, a partner with the Grand Rapids law firm of Warner Norcross & Judd, is leading a team of attorneys that hopes the Supreme Court will grant a hearing to a copyright dispute between the Doyle estate and Leslie Klinger, an author who wants to use the Sherlock Holmes character in a book he has written.

“The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle absolutely has the right to protect the copyrights of the Sherlock Holmes character,” said Bursch, who argues that Doyle’s stories are still protected under a 1919 law that preserves an author’s copyright for 95 years. Doyle published his last 10 Sherlock Holmes stories in 1927.

Bursch said conflicting rulings by several federal appeals courts make this case ripe for the high court’s consideration. While the Doyle family has been agreeable to license references to the famous detective in books, movies and television shows, Klinger has argued he does not need to seek their permission prior to publication.

“This lawsuit affects so much more than 10 Sherlock Holmes stories,” Bursch said. “Other affected characters include such treasures as A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, DC Comics’ Superman and many others.”

For the Doyle estate, Klinger’s book may not be a big deal, Bursch said. The family has charged Klinger $5,000 plus a small royalty for a previous book that invoked Sherlock Holmes.

But the copyright could become more lucrative for the next movie that refers to the famous character, he said.

Bursch said they hope to learn this fall if the high court will hear their appeal. If the justices grant “certiorari” to hear the case, Bursch will be in familiar territory.

The 42-year-old Caledonia father of five has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court eight times in the past four years as Michigan’s Solicitor General and a Warner partner. The Wall Street Journal estimated Bursch was involved in 30 percent of the cases identified as the “biggest” of court’s last term.

It’s an unusual stage on which to practice law,” Bursch said. While lawyers are given 60 minutes to present their case, most of that time is spent answering questions the justices fire at them.

“It’s an interesting skill you have to develop,” said Bursch. Instead of reading from prepared remarks, the lawyers have to make sure their points are made as they respond to the questions from the bench.

Bursch, who said he had six wins and two ties in his eight appearances before the high court, treasures a handwritten note in which Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagen complimented his work in a note to his former boss, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Though he’s a heavy-hitter in the courtroom today, the 42-year-old Grand Ledge native did not start out with a legal career in mind. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in music and mathematics.

He went on to earn a law degree at the University of Minnesota before returning to Michigan and Grand Rapids, located halfway between his parents and his in-laws, Bursch said.

Jim Harger covers business for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him atjharger@mlive.com or follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google+.

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