US judge rules Sherlock Holmes and Watson are in the public domain

Illustration for article titled US judge rules Sherlock Holmes and Watson are in the public domain

If you've had a Sherlock Holmes in space novel idea kicking around your head, now might be a good time to start writing it. A United States federal judge has ruled that Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and other elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are no longer covered by US copyright law.

Editor Leslie S. Klinger filed a complaint against Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. regarding the publication of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories edited by Klinger and Laurie R. King. Publisher Pegasus Books received a letter from Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. stating that it would block the sale of the anthology unless it received a licensing fee for the use of elements of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. The estate argued that, since some Sherlock Holmes stories will not enter into the public domain in the US until 2022, elements from the early stories, including the characters, are still covered under US copyright law. The argument, which Ruben Castillo, Chief Judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, called "novel" in his opinion, is that, since the characters continued to develop through the stories that remain under copyright, the characters themselves are not in the public domain.

In a declaratory judgment, Castillo held that, even though not all Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain, elements from the stories that appeared before January 1st, 1923 are in the public domain. He cited several other cases in which US courts have found that, when some of a character's stories are in the public domain, the character is him-, her-, or itself in the public domain as well. The elements that first appear post-January 1st, 1923 are, however, still under US copyright.

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Benjamin W. Allison, a lawyer for the Conan Doyle Estate, told the New York Times that the estate is exploring the possibility of an appeal and that the ruling will not alter any current licensing agreements, nor the estate's claims under trademark law.

Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Memorandum Opinion and Order [Free Sherlock via New York Times]

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DISCUSSION

commonperson
commonperson

What I find interesting is the people saying "yeah suck on that Doyles!" My grandfather was a composer, a classical composer so the royalties are fairly small but my grand mother still receives them. A lot of the comments I see are about how "estates suck" and are "evil" and "keep the work away from the public".

What I'm not seeing is anyone actually caring about the integrity of the art, actually caring that the artist's wishes are being respected, or that they continue to maintain the integrity. Yeah in this case it was a short story collection by a bunch of people who are smaller time authors or maybe not a "big corporation" but the reality is, those who stand to benefit best from this ruling are not the small time authors and others but the mega-corporations. Those who would flood the market with cheap knock offs.

Right now Sherlock Holmes is quite popular, expect a bunch of Sharknado class productions to come out. I'm not saying "public domain is evil" I think the 50 or 70 years since death is a reasonable set of numbers to work from but remember this is often a case of artists being protected from companies like Activision putting the likeness of a deceased musician in a game to caper for you, or an artist preventing a character from being used in another work of fiction in a way that's entirely incongruous with the original material. Authors, musicians, artists, their family should have a say in how their work is portrayed and presented (in a reasonable manner) and this sweeping "Estates are evil" sentiment is unhealthy, not everything is the Tolkein or Herbert estate looking to hump the dead patron's work in to the ground.