March 11, 2013

Sherlock Holmes estate charged with “copyfraud”


Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes

One lawyer’s passion for Sherlock Holmes has staked him against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s rather litigious estate, and placed him squarely in the ongoing debate over literary estate overreach and “copyfraud.” Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and a Holmes scholar, accuses the estate of falsely asserting copyright over a number of the famous detective stories.

Claire Suddath in Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Klinger, a Holmes super-fan. Klinger has written extensively about the detective, including compiling a Norton Anthology on the series.

This time around, Klinger ran into problems when, with Laurie King, he began to put together a collection of short stories inspired by Holmes, called In The Company of Sherlock.

Some Holmes stories remain in copyright, while others have passed into the public domain, but when the estate heard about the book, they demanded to be paid for licensing the entire project.

Suddath explains the situation,

In the U.S., the Conan Doyle estate owns the copyright to the last 10 stories that Doyle published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1927. They’re some of Doyle’s later work and do not include Doyle’s most famous Holmes mysteries, such as A Scandal In Bohemia or The Hound of the Baskervilles…Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes stories were written earlier and have since entered the public domain. But the estate says that because it retains the copyright to some stories (set to expire in 2023), anyone who wants to write a book, film a movie, or make a thrilling TV series…has to obtain a license for the use of Sherlock Holmes, Watson, James Moriarty, or any other Doyle character. (In Britain and Canada, the Sherlock Holmes stories are all in the public domain.)

Klinger claims that the estate threatened to ensure that neither Amazon or Barnes & Noble would carry the book, if publication went ahead without a license for every story.

Pegasus Books, the publisher of In The Company of Sherlock, is standing by Klinger and King, and refusing to pay the licensing fee, which they view is falsely demanded. Klinger’s previous publishers have simply paid the fees, citing that to pay lawyers would most likely end up costing more than the license itself.

Pegasus Books and Klinger are to be commended for standing up to the Conan Doyle estate. Although the estate’s claim to a number of Holmes’ stories may be legitimate, their overreach helps no one and limits the creative ways in which new readers, filmmakers and authors can make use of a beloved figure of literature.

Copyfraud, whereby copyright is falsely asserted over works that are in fact in the public domain, is unfortunately a common practice in literature, particularly in the world of estate maintenance. As John Mazzone wrote in his introduction to his University of Illinois essay, Copyfraud,

False copyright notices appear on modern reprints of Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s piano scores, greeting card versions of Monet‘s Water Lilies, and even the U.S. Constitution. Archives claim blanket copyright in everything in their collections. Vendors of microfilmed versions of historical newspapers assert copyright ownership. These false copyright claims, which are often accompanied by threatened litigation for reproducing a work without the owner’s permission, result in users seeking licenses and paying fees to reproduce works that are free for everyone to use…Copyfraud stifles valid forms of reproduction and undermines free speech.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.