It is often assumed that something that is generically old-ish is “obviously” in the public domain.  This is not necessarily true.  Add to that the variation between the copyright laws of different nations and some odd things can happen.

The United States gets a lot of stick for its copyright laws and long copyright terms (although France is to blame for a lot of that; I prefer America’s old registration and renewal system). However, it isn’t the only country to throw unexpected spanners in the public domain’s works, and a combination of different country’s laws can have odd results.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are entirely in the public domain almost everywhere on Earth—except in the United States. The United Kingdom uses Life+70, or 70 years pma (post mortem author), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, so his works entered the public domain in their home country in 2001. The Rule of the Shorter Term means that this applies to most other countries as well. In America, however, Doyle’s children renewed the copyright on most of his last collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, per the laws of the time and subsequent amendments, granting it 67 extra years of protection, on top of the standard 28 from the date of publication. The majority of the Holmes stories are out of copyright as  they are everywhere else but the last of these particular stories will not enter the public domain until 2023. (To add confusion, these stories were in initially in the public domain in the UK in 1981 under Life+50 terms, were dragged back into copyright in 1996 by European harmonisation, then returned to the public domain in 2001. In countries like Canada and Australia, which maintain the old Life+50 term, they were public domain in 1981 and stayed there.)

H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898 and died in 1946, so at time of writing, all of his works are still under copyright in Britain. They will enter the public domain on 1st January 2017. In America, however, copyright terms were measured from the date of first publication and only lasted for either 28, 42 or 56 years; so it entered the public domain in that country in either 1927, 1941 (both during Wells’ lifetime), or 1955—depending on the exact details of the copyright situation, of which I am not aware.

Both are British in origin, from authors who are considered to be Victorian (although both died in the Twentieth century) but the copyright situations vary wildly.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place“, the last of the Holmes canon, first published in 1927, entered the public domain in its home country in 2001, but won’t enter the public domain in America until 22 years later. Conversely, The War of the Worlds, first published much earlier in 1898, entered the public domain in America in 1955 at the latest, but won’t enter the public domain in its home country until 62 years later (possibly even 90 years later if the shortest of the possible terms is correct).

As ever, copyright can be odd and counter-intuitive. Also: generically old things aren’t necessarily free just because they seem old.