Chief District Court Judge Rubén Castillo issued a summary judgment on Monday that found that many of the familiar elements of the Holmes canon are no longer covered by United States copyright law and have long since fallen into the public domain.
The ruling this week comes as a result of a lawsuit filed in February 2013 by a Holmes enthusiast. Finding the publication of his latest anthology of Holmes stories blocked by the Conan Doyle estate, noted Sherlockian scholar, Baker Street Irregular, and prominent attorney Leslie Klinger filed suit in the federal district court of Illinois to settle once and for all whether the character Sherlock Holmes was under copyright or in the public domain.
The Conan Doyle estate had been shaking down new book, TV, and movie productions for some years now with requests for license fees. They had collected fees from everyone from WB, which produced the Robert Downey Jr Holmes movies, to Paramount, which paid for a couple episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation back in the 1990s.
Even Mr Klinger (or rather, his publisher) had reportedly paid license fees for his previous Holmes works, including The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library and The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, but when he found himself in conflict over the upcoming publication of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes he took to the courthouse rather than the boardroom. That anthology was going to be published by Pegasus Books and included Holmes stories by numerous well-known mystery/sci-fi/fantasy authors.
But after receiving warning letters from the Conan Doyle estate, the publisher declined to publish the book without a license from the estate. There's mention in the summary judgement that the estate made veiled threats that they would block distribution of the new book from reaching bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble. The author has never believed that a license was never required, and in February 2013 he filed suit to force the issue.
This ruling is a stake through the heart of a questionable legal theory which claimed that the characters of Holmes and Watson were still under copyright simply because they appeared in stories that were under copyright.
And just to be clear, the ruling is specifically limited to elements found in the 50 Holmes works written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published before 1 January 1923, and include the address 221B Baker Street, the characters Holmes, Watson, and Professor Moriarty, and other elements of the Holmes universe, but does not include any detail found exclusively in the last collection of stories which was published after 1923 in the US.
Now the Conan Doyle estate will have to limit itself to only collecting fees based on the trademarks they possess as well as copyrighted elements found in the one remaining Conan Doyle book, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the few Sherlock Holmes stories that are under copyright in the US - 10 stories, in fact. This includes such details as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath.
On a related note, the estate won't have any luck trying to collect similar fees in other countries; Conan Doyle died well over 70 years ago so his works are out of copyright every where but the US.
P.S. Those who are interested can find a copy of the summary judgement at this link.
- Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Now Being Sued to Settle Whether Sherlock Holmes is in the Public Domain (The Digital Reader)
- December 2013: Ruling (Free Sherlock!)
- Plaintiff Victorious in Free Sherlock Case (I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere)
- Sherlock Holmes Is in the Public Domain, American Judge Rules (NYTimes.com)
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