Books News & Features
5:39 pm
Tue January 7, 2014

Sherlock's Expiring Copyright: It's Public Domain, Dear Watson

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 9:53 am

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.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More sleuthing now from one of the world's most famous detectives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, 'SHERLOCK')

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock) The name is Sherlock Holmes and the address is 221B Baker Street.

SIEGEL: Only this time, Holmes isn't the one solving the case, he is at the heart of it.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal judge in Chicago recently ruled that the characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories - including Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson - now reside in the public domain here in the U.S. That means anyone who wants to write new material about the characters no longer needs to seek permission or pay licensing fees to the Doyle estate.

SIEGEL: That is - and here's where it gets tricky - as long as they do not include any elements introduced in the last 10 Sherlock Holmes stories that Conan Doyle published. Everything else is fair game, just the last 10.

LES KLINGER: Those stories remain in copyright in the United States. And the copyrights will be expiring over the next eight years.

SIEGEL: That's Les Klinger, editor of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes." He also put together a collection of new stories all inspired by Holmes. When the Conan Doyle estate insisted Klinger pay a licensing fee or it would block release of the book, Klinger filed a civil complaint against the estate.

CORNISH: His argument: That the defining characteristics in the Sherlock Holmes series can be found in the first 50 novels, and stories that are already in the public domain. And just because those last 10 stories are currently protected by copyright law, Klinger says, does not mean you should be subject to fees.

KLINGER: 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.

SIEGEL: The Conan Doyle estate plans to appeal the decision. Attorney William Zieske represents the estate.

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.

SIEGEL: Unless the ruling is overturned, that means some parts of the Sherlock Holmes universe are still licensed property of the Conan Doyle estate, while others are in the public domain. It is not elementary, my dear Watson. It's copyright law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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