Benedict Cumberbatch, left, as Sherlock Holmes, and Martin Freeman as Watson in "Sherlock," the BBC's modern-day version.

Colin Hutton, Dml - � Hartwood Films 2012

Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes in films of the late ’30s and early ’40s.

File photo,

Sherlock Holmes headed for the public domain

  • Article by: Jennifer Schuessler
  • New York Times
  • December 27, 2013 - 8:57 PM

In the more than 125 years since he first appeared, Sherlock Holmes has popped up everywhere from fan fiction set in outer space to screen adaptations such as CBS’ “Elementary,” set in contemporary New York. But now, following a legal ruling, the deerstalker-wearing detective is headed to another destination: the public domain.

A federal judge has issued a declarative judgment stating that Holmes, Watson, 221B Baker Street, the dastardly Professor Moriarty and other elements included in the 50 Holmes works that Arthur Conan Doyle published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by U.S. copyright law.

That means they can be freely used by creators without paying any licensing fee to the Conan Doyle estate.

The ruling came in response to a civil complaint filed in February by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “The Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and a number of other Holmes-related books.

The complaint stemmed from “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of new Holmes stories written by different authors and edited by Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’ wife.

Klinger and King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Klinger said that the publisher of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., a business entity organized in Britain, suggesting that the estate would prevent the new book from being sold by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and “similar retailers” unless it received a fee.

Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, rejected the estate’s claim that the characters and the basic Holmes story line themselves remained under copyright, since they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle stopped writing.

Klinger said he planned to go forward with “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” which he said avoided any post-1923 elements. He also praised the ruling for opening the way to other creators.

“Holmes belongs to the world, and this ruling clearly establishes that,” he said. “People want to celebrate Holmes and Watson, and now they can do that without fear.”

Benjamin Allison, a lawyer for the Conan Doyle estate, said that it was exploring an appeal but asserted that the ruling did not imperil any existing licensing agreements or the estate’s separate claims under trademark law.

Allison also reiterated the estate’s claim that the “highly delineated” Holmes and Watson characters depend on elements introduced in the post-1923 stories, which remain protected.

“Those stories are set at a variety of points in Sherlock’s fictional life, not just the end of his life,” he said. “They develop the two men’s characters in ways that almost any use of the characters depends on.”

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