Court Rules Sherlock Holmes is in the Public Domain

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Everyone’s favorite resident of 221B Baker Street will continue to solve crimes in peace, as a U.S. court ruled yesterday that the characters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are officially in the public domain.

Back in 2011, author Leslie Klinger published an anthology, titled A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon, based on the characters from Doyle’s books. Doyle’s estate called this an infringement on copyright and demanded that Klinger’s publisher Random House pay a $5,000 licensing fee. Random House obliged, figuring it easier to pay up than go to trial. But this year, Klinger announced plans to write a second book, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, and when the Doyle estate again demanded a licensing fee, Klinger fought back.

Most of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes material was written between the years of 1887 and 1922, when the U.S. copyright term was 75 years. But in 1998, a federal decision extended the copyright term to 95 years. Since Doyle penned a few final tales in the 1920s, the new law would mean the copyright on those stories still held.

It’s a fine line to walk, and the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago acknowledged both sides of the argument yesterday in their ruling.

Judge Richard Posner ruled that the copyright had indeed expired on the majority of the novels, meaning Holmes, Watson and Doyle’s other beloved characters are in the public domain. The material published after 1922 still remains under copyright, however, so the public domain does not include the right to write about any events or character traits disclosed specifically in those works. For instance, Posner wrote in his decision, “Only in the late stories … do we learn that Holmes’ attitude toward dogs has changed — he has grown to like them — and that Watson has been married twice.”

Doyle wrote four novels and dozens of short stories set in the Sherlock Holmes universe before 1922, so the court decision leaves Klinger with plenty of usable material.

Klinger isn’t the only offender the Doyle estate has pursued. The creators of Sherlock, Elementary and the film adaptations have all paid licensing fees, Slate reported last year. But from here on out, Doyle’s characters and most of their traits are officially fair game. It’s elementary, really.

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