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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Now Sherlock Holmes|Belongs to Everyone

CHICAGO (CN) - The famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty companion Dr. John Watson are no longer protected by copyright, a federal judge ruled.

Leslie Klinger, a Sherlock Holmes expert, had sued the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. in February 2013, claiming that it has no copyright on the Holmes and Watson characters or the world of Baker Street, as the key elements of that fictional world, including 46 of the 56 Sherlock Holmes stories, are in the public domain.

Klinger has written two dozen books and numerous articles on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's four novels and 56 stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, which includes a collection published by W.W. Norton titled "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes."

Warner Bros. even used Klinger as its technical adviser for the two recent Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr.

Klinger says all of the Sherlock Holmes story elements entered the public domain in 1980, 50 years after Conan Doyle's death.

While Conan Doyle's last surviving child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, re-registered the copyright to "The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes" in the United States in 1981, "none of the Sherlock Holmes Story Elements first appeared in 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' or in the stories that comprise the collection, and none of the Sherlock Holmes Story Elements are protected by any copyright that may still apply to 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' or its constituent stories under U.S. law," the complaint stated.

Two of the 12 stories in this collection were published in the United States before 1923, but most of the Sherlock Holmes story elements were published in earlier stories.

The Holmes character first appeared in 1887.

U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo agreed with Klinger last week that the Holmes character and all story elements published before 1923 are in the public domain.

"It is a bedrock principle of copyright that 'once work enters the public domain it cannot be appropriated as private (intellectual) property,' and even the most creative of legal theories cannot trump this tenet," the judge said. "Having established that all but the ten stories have passed into the public domain, this court concluded that the pre-1923 story elements are free for public use."

The post-1923 story elements nevertheless have not yet entered the public domain, according to the ruling.

These elements include details such as a description of Watson's second wife, the doctor's background as an athlete and Holmes' retirement from his detective agency.

Applying 7th Circuit precedent regarding incremental expression, "the court finds that the low threshold of originality required for increments of expression counsels toward finding the post-1923 story elements are copyrightable," the 22-page opinion states.

"Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world," Klinger wrote on his "Free Sherlock" website in response to Castillo's decision. "This ruling clearly establishes that. Whether it's a reimagining in modern dress (like the BBC's 'Sherlock' or CBS-TV's 'Elementary'), vigorous interpretations like the Warner Bros. fine Sherlock Holmes films, or new stories by countless authors inspired by the characters, people want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle's heirs." (Parentheses in original.)

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