Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and editor of a new Sherlock Holmes collection, in his office in Los Angeles, Feb. 26, 2013. Klinger has filed a legal complaint against the Conan Doyle estate arguing that Sherlock Holmes and the basic elements of his world were in the public domain. (Emily Berl/The New York Times) ORG XMIT: MIN2013031813343940


Who owns the rights to Sherlock Holmes?

  • New York Times
  • March 19, 2013 - 5:21 PM

Devotees of Sherlock Holmes are a famously obsessive bunch, and in the 126 years since Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his coolheaded detective they have certainly had plenty of real-world intrigues to ponder alongside fictional ones.

There have been fierce battles over control of Conan Doyle’s estate and the preservation of his former home in Surrey, England — to say nothing of the wild speculations surrounding the mysterious 2004 death of a prominent Holmes scholar.

But when the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only literary club, gathered for their annual weekend in New York in January, few had any inkling they would soon be embroiled in a distinctly 21st-century case that might be called “The Adventure of the Social Media-Driven Copyright Debate, With Annotations on Sherlockian Sexism and the True Nature of Literary Devotion.”

A few weeks later, after a leading Holmes scholar and longtime Irregular filed a legal complaint against the Conan Doyle estate arguing that Sherlock Holmes and the basic elements of his world were in the public domain, various online Sherlockian conclaves exploded.

“The suit has wreaked havoc,” said Betsy Rosenblatt, an assistant professor at Whittier Law School and a member of the Irregulars, who pointed to the spread of a “#freesherlock” hashtag on Twitter.

The suit, which stems from the estate’s efforts to collect a licensing fee for a planned collection of new Holmes-related stories by Sara Paretsky, Michael Connelly and other writers, makes a seemingly simple argument. Of the 60 Conan Doyle stories and novels in “the Canon” (as Sherlockians call it), only the 10 stories first published in the United States after 1923 remain under copyright. Therefore, the suit asserts, many fees paid to the estate have been unnecessary.

But it’s also shaping up to be something of what one blogger called “a Sherlockian Civil War.” On one side is Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” as well as an editor of the new collection. On the other is Jon Lellenberg, the Conan Doyle estate’s American agent.

The tide of sympathy among Sherlockians is running strongly in Klinger’s favor. “They’ve heard about the way the estate is going around bullying people,” said Darlene Cypser, author of a self-published trilogy about the young Holmes, for which the estate initially demanded a licensing fee. (She declined to pay, she said.) “This has been coming for some time. I’m glad Les decided to take it up.”

Klinger did pay a fee for a similar collection in 2011, but this time said he is calling the estate’s bluff. “It’s the ultimate case of the emperor having no clothes,” said Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing lawyer who represents him.

The estate, meanwhile, is standing firm. “Holmes is a unified literary character that wasn’t completely developed until the author laid down his pen,” said Benjamin Allison, a lawyer for the estate.

Klinger’s lawsuit has also landed in the middle of a broader old-guard/new-guard argument over who owns Sherlock Holmes, one in which Lellenberg, many say, is playing a divisive role.

As the estate’s representative he has helped bestow its blessing on lucrative projects like the Warner Bros. film franchise and updated TV versions like the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’ “Elementary,” which have brought in money and new fans.

Many old-line members of the club applaud the new blood, represented most prominently by the Baker Street Babes, a group of young female Sherlockians. “There were traditional Sherlockians, fans of just the adaptations, young people, old people, pretty darn old people,” Rosenblatt said. “It felt revolutionary.”

Some say that the estate can be quite open-minded. Richard Monson-Haefel of Noble Beast, the multimedia publisher behind “Steampunk Holmes,” an interactive mash-up based on the public-domain story “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” said he paid a fee to the estate after learning it also asserts trademark protection for the character that, unlike copyright, can be renewed in perpetuity.

“The estate has given us a little boost here and there,” said Monson-Haefel. “I’m pretty happy with the situation.”

That happy ending, however, may not last long. In addition to the copyright suit, Klinger said he also plans to oppose the estate’s trademark claims.

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