Holmes scholar files suit to put Sherlock unambiguously into the public domain

Matt sends us this, "Article from leading Sherlock Holmes blog about a recent civil action filed by a prominent Sherlockian (Leslie Klinger, editor of 'The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes') who also happens to be an attorney, against The Conan Doyle Estate:"

A civil action was filed today in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate by Sherlock Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger. Klinger seeks to have the Court determine that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson are no longer protected by federal copyright laws and that writers, filmmakers, and others are free to create new stories about Holmes, Watson, and others of their circle without paying license fees to the current owners of the remaining copyrights.

Klinger says that the litigation came about because he and Laurie R. King, best-selling author of the "Mary Russell" series of mysteries that also feature Sherlock Holmes, were co-editing a new book called "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes." This collection of stories by major mystery/sci-fi/fantasy authors inspired by the Holmes tales, is to be published by Pegasus Books. "The Conan Doyle Estate contacted our publisher," says Klinger, "and implied that if the Estate wasn't paid a license fee, they'd convince the major distributors not to sell the book. Our publisher was, understandably, concerned, and told us that the book couldn't come out unless this was resolved.

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle's stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws. However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty 'public-domain' stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.

"This isn't the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators," Klinger adds. "It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn't afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for 'permission.' I'm asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle."

"Don't Imagine That You Can Bully Me" [CHAS] (Thanks, Matt!)

(Image: Sherlock Holmes Statue, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 33124746@N04's photostream)


  1. It’s about time.  

    The Doyle estate allegedly didn’t like / condone / approve of the Star Trek TNG episodes that had Data recreating Sherlock on the Holodeck.  They allegedly complained and Paramount agreed to make no further Sherlock TNG episodes.  

    It was a shame, they were some of my favorite TNG episodes, and a clear example of the value of the public domain and its ability to inspire the creation of new art.

    1. On the plus side, it means they didn’t get a chance to beat the idea to a slow, agonizing death; see, e.g., Q, the Borg…

  2. Is Lovecraft next?

    Someone should write a series of books featuring every character currently under dubious copyright; The League of Extra-litigious Gentlemen.

      1. Yes. Authors who then asserted copyright and trademark. See, e.g., August Derleth and Chaosium.

        No good deed goes unpunished.

  3. Its so sad that The Conan Doyle Estate, representing the man who brought the world Sherlock Holmes, would need such a giant clue to solve this mystery.

  4. Hear, hear!  As if Holmes would ever concern himself with something as pedestrian as placating the relatives of his long-dead creator.  Minds have grown softer with the generations, it would seem.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree that the estate need to finally back off. But I was under the impression that their case these days were about trade marks, rather than copyright. True, they only registered all he characters as trademarks when the copyright was running out (for the second time) …

  6. Here’s an idea. Come up with your own characters.

    I dislike onerous copyright laws as much as the next guy, but if your book relies so heavily on someone else’s character, well, then at least pay them for it. I’ll side with the Doyle estate on this.

    1. The problem with this idea is twofold:

      1) This approach rules whole sections of our culture, effectively, off-limits to remix, examination, criticism and extension.  This is a Bad Thing.

      2) This isn’t about paying the author for his work.  The author has been dead for more than eighty years.  This is about paying a bunch of other people, most of whom are lawyers who had no actual connection to Doyle whatsoever, for his work. 

      Society benefits from this because… how?

    2. You’re arguing for perpetual copyrights. 

      Doyle is dead. He’s been dead for years. His estate did not create Sherlock Holmes or Watson. They no longer own the copyright to those characters. 

      Thousands of years ago, some Scythians in what is now known as Ukraine invented the first pair pants. By your logic, every time someone now buys a pair of pants, they should send the relatives of those Scythians money, because hey — the Scythians invented pants. If you’re going to wear them, at least pay them for it. 

      You do not “dislike” onerous copyright laws. You support them. Concern troll is concerned.

      Here’s an idea: accept the fact that copyrights and patents should have limits, and the reason they have limits is because culture is a social good, not private property to be hoarded by corporations and estates.

    3. Does Tom Stoppard owe the estate of William Shakespeare for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?
      Does Andrew Lloyd Webber owe the estates of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for Jesus Christ Superstar?

      Does the estate of William Shakespeare owe the estate of Matteo Bandello?

      Like Tynam said, Doyle’s been dead for 80 years. Unless you’re opposed to copyrights *ever* expiring, we’re just working out the details of exactly *when* that should happen.

  7. Just watch though, the ACD estate will likely pull the same crap the Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard estates did, trademark “Sherlock Holmes” and it’ll end up just like Tarzan and Conan: perpetually locked out of the public domain despite the established laws. Or perhaps because of them.

    1.  As I understand it, the ACD Estate has already trademarked the major characters, and it’s a trademark issue, not a copyright issue. If people don’t like trademark law, they should act to change trademark law. While I’d like to see Sherlock Holmes open to free use, it’s hard to blame the ACD estate for taking advantage of rights they may possess in a straightforwardly legal sense.

  8. None of this matters because the next time the rat who shall not be named is within 10 years of being in the public domain, Disney will kick the copyright term on another few decades and maybe a few back just to be sure.

  9. Look, we can’t allow Sherlock Holmes to go into public domain… if just ANYBODY can write Sherlock Holmes, how are we ever going to incentivize Arthur Conan Doyle to write more himself?

  10. I don’t know where I stand on this issue. On one hand I think copyright should have a definite end, and that the current estate holders made no contribution to the creation of the characters. On the other I believe that to open such well known and loved characters completely to public domain will leade to their slow degradation. I’m not English, but whenever i think english history, somehow i think Sherlock Holmes. He’s more than a character he’s a cultural icon. He has his own museum, an honorary mention in the forensic science hall of fame (can’t remember where I found that out, but it’s true and he’s the only fictional character ever for that) shouldn’t there be some form of control over his and Watsons use if only to protect their integrity?

    1. You can’t control the use of, or the integrity of, an idea.  Ideas are infinitely malleable.  Right now, there are hundreds if not thousands of people shipping Sherlock Holmes and Watson, which is PROBABLY not what ACD intended… but there’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s probably dozens of people considering the possibilities of Sherlock Holmes being Jack the Ripper, and as many or more considering him chasing the murderer (and at least a few considering both, a la A Scanner Darkly).   This is all okay too.

      None of this harms Sherlock Holmes.  

      The only thing copyright/trademark can do is prevent certain people from making money from it, and to a certain degree, from spreading it around.  It can used to stamp out GREAT stories that might use the character, even in a small way, just as easily as it can stamp out the ones that harm the “integrity” of Sherlock Holmes.

      But note, keeping it out of public domain does not prevent people from, say, writing and selling an official Sherlock Holmes novel where it’s revealed that he’s a rapist.  All it means is that the current OWNERS of Sherlock Holmes have to decide that they want to do that.  And since the rights can be sold, that decision can be made, years down the line, by some corporation who thinks that they can make more money doing that, rather than doing something that upholds the “integrity” of the character.  

      Giving it to everybody puts everybody on the same footing.  None of them are the originals, none of them are “official”… but anybody has the chance to do something great.  And what they write manages to penetrate the public consciousness so much that it becomes part of what everybody thinks of when they say “Sherlock Holmes”… good for them.

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