September 19, 2013

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain


A legal fight is brewing over ownership of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. In a lawsuit filed in February, Leslie Klinger, a Holmes scholar, argues that the entirety of the Holmes canon should be public domain, and the Conan Doyle estate should be barred from further claiming rights and demanding permissions. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

Klinger worked on the book, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, and in the course of doing so, was contacted by agents for the Doyle estate who asserted a license was needed. Instead of agreeing, Klinger sought a declaratory judgment in Illinois federal court, pointing out that many of Doyle’s stories were published before 1920s, which is argued puts them in the public domain.

Techdirt explains the technicalities:

For a few years now we’ve discussed a few times some of the confusion as to why Sherlock Holmes isn’t considered in the public domain in the US, even though he probably should be. As we’ve explained, all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books except for one are in the public domain. The Conan Doyle estate claims that having that single book under copyright means that the entire character is covered by copyright.

Responding, seven months later, to the lawsuit, the estate has claimed that placing Holmes entirely into the public domain will result in “multiple personalities” for the famed detective. Because the Holmes and Watson characters evolved over time, the estate argues, it is impossible to separate the character of Sherlock Holmes, introduced in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, from the character he would become by the time Doyle stopped writing the stories in 1927. TechDirt explains it this way: “Astoundingly, the filing suggests that the public domain clock only begins at the point where the ‘creation of the characters was complete.’ That is, so long as you never ‘complete’ the character creation, they can never go into the public domain.”

If you’re thinking that Sherlock Holmes has already been subject to multiple interpretations, you’re right. Guinness World Records has Holmes listed as the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” Currently, there are two TV series (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller), one huge movie franchise (with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role), and another movie being developed with Sir Ian McKellen portraying Holmes.

According to the estate’s argument, as long as a character was “evolving,” the clock counting down to public domain would be stopped. There is nothing elementary (of course) about the estate’s position, and a favorable ruling would drastically change the copyright and public domain landscape.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.