Sherlock Holmes, the world-renown detective of 221B Baker Street fame, has been ruled in the public domain. The decision handed down by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that 46 Sherlock Holmes stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before 1923, along with the associated characters, are in the public domain.
The decision came in a lawsuit between Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate and Leslie Klinger, who was editing an anthology of stories inspired by the famed detective and other Doyle characters. This suit involved Klinger’s second book of stories based on the Sherlock Holmes canon. For his first anthology, his publisher paid a licensing fee to Doyle’s estate. This time, however, Klinger opted to sue the estate instead of paying the fee.
Most of the copyrights on the Sherlock Holmes stories have already expired. Only Doyle’s final 10 works, which were published between 1923 and 1927, are still protected under American copyright law. The expiration dates on these last 10 works will expire between 2018 and 2022, depending on their original dates of publication.
Sherlock Holmes has been ruled in the public domain, which will make publishing any totems or producing any other works of fiction based on the famed detective much easier and less expensive. The writer responsible for the lawsuit proved his case by claiming the stories in his anthology only drew on material from the famed detective stories already in the public domain. While the estate claimed that Doyle’s last 10 stories greatly helped to flesh or round out the characters of Holmes and his associates, so the estate’s hold on the characters should extend until the copyright on the last story expired. Klinger was victorious in the case because the judge asserted that Doyle’s estate was using this literary explanation as a way to obtain almost 135 years of copyright protection, which is well beyond the norm. Most copyrights expire after 95 years from their publication dates.
Judge Richard Posner went on to contend in his ruling that “it appears that the Doyle estate is concerned not with specific alterations in the depiction of Holmes or Watson in Holmes-Watson stories written by authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle, but with any such story that is published without payment to the estate of a licensing fee.” The last 10 stories and any material from the works, which are still under copyright until as late as 2022, will remain off-limits without a licensing fee paid to the Doyle estate. The court noted, for instance, that it is only in these stories that the characters have demonstrated notable attitude and personality changes, such as Holmes’ acquired fondness for dogs and Watson being married twice in the later works.
In a ruling that declared Sherlock Holmes in the public domain, while citing the Star Wars series and works of Shakespeare as supporting evidence, Judge Posner also rejected the estate’s claim that Holmes was a ‘complex’ character, who was not fully fleshed out until Doyle’s last work was published. Therefore, the estate lost the case due to its argument that all of Doyle’s works should remain under protection until the last copyright on his final 10 Holmes stories published after 1922 expired. This ruling not only pleased Klinger, who was responsible for the lawsuit to free Holmes, but also provided an opportunity for writers, filmmakers, and other creators to make free use of the famed detective, his associates, and any other story elements that appeared in Doyle works published prior to Jan. 1, 1923.
By Leigh Haugh