Sherlock Holmes Has (Mostly) Entered the Public Domain

In what may not come as a surprise to many in the legal field, a federal court has recently confirmed that pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes-related works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are within the public domain.

In the United States, it is established that copyrights of any works published or copyrighted prior to 1923 have expired, and such works are part of the public domain. The characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were first introduced in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “A Study in Scarlet.” Prior to 1923, Doyle published a total of four novels, and forty-six short stories involving these characters. It would be reasonable to conclude that any of these pre-1923 works were in the public domain, free of copyright protection.

However, the estate of Conan Doyle, while agreeing that the pre-1923 works were in the public domain, felt that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were still under copyright protection. Doyle published ten short stories on or after January 1, 1923, involving Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which remain under copyright protection in the United States until 2022. The estate of Conan Doyle argued that because of the continued development of the characters in these later works, both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson should remain under copyright protection until the expiration of copyright to the last short story.

Leslie S. Klinger, an editor of an anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories written by contemporary writers, sought to avoid paying what he felt was unnecessary licensing fees to the Conan Doyle estate. On February 14, Klinger filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, seeking to establish that pre-1923 “Sherlock Holmes story elements,” including the characters, are in the public domain.

On December 23, Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois, issued a declaratory judgment, stating that all pre-1923 “Sherlock Holmes story elements” were indeed within the public domain. Judge Castillo further stated that post-1923 “Sherlock Holmes story elements,” such as Dr. Watson’s second wife, Dr. Watson’s athletic background, or Sherlock Holmes’ retirement were still protected under copyright.

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