Beloved sleuth Sherlock Holmes has stumbled onto a new conundrum: A federal judge in Chicago recently ruled that the characters in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories — including Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson — now reside in the public domain.
That means anyone who wants to write new material about the characters no longer needs to seek permission or pay license fees to the Doyle estate. That is, as long as you don't include any elements introduced in the last 10 Sherlock Holmes stories released in the U.S. after 1922.
"Those stories remain in copyright in the United States," explains Leslie Klinger, editor of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. "And the copyrights will be expiring over the next eight years."
Klinger filed a civil complaint against the Doyle estate in spring of 2013. He argued the defining characteristics of the Sherlock Holmes series can be found in the first 50 novels and stories now in the public domain.
Just because the last 10 stories are currently protected by copyright law, Klinger argues, does not mean you should be subject to fees.
"Even though some of the same characteristics also appear in the copyrighted stories — For example, the names, the fact that Holmes and Watson live in Baker Street with Mrs. Hudson and so on — and the court agreed," says Klinger.
The Doyle estate plans to appeal the decision, says Doyle attorney William Zieske.
"What we'll be arguing is that a character, particularly a literary character, really does not become entirely formed until the author has put down his pen and finished with the last story that develops that character," Zieske says.
Unless a judge overturns the ruling, elements of the Sherlock Holmes character are now both licensed property of the Doyle estate and in the public domain.
It's not elementary, my dear Watson. It's copyright law.