Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain

January 3, 2014 - GamePolitics Staff

If creative types want to write stories, draw cartoons, make movies, or even video games based on the classic Sherlock Holmes franchise, they need not worry about copyright issues related to the classic character. A judge has ruled that Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and famous locales related to the world's greatest detective are now in the public domain.

The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by a Sherlock Holmes expert named Leslie Klinger, who sued the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. in February 2013. Klinger asserted in his lawsuit that the Conan Doyle estate had no rights to the Sherlock Homes franchise because the classic literary works are in the public domain as of 1980.

Klinger has written two dozen books and a number of 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." He is also considered an expert by Warner Bros., who hired him to consult on the two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr.

The last surviving family member of the Conan Doyle Estate, Dame Jean Conan, re-registered the copyright to "The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes" in the United States in 1981

U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo agreed with Klinger in a ruling last week, saying 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 judge ruled that the post-1923 story elements have not yet entered the public domain, according to the ruling. These elements include details about Watson's second wife, the doctor's background as an athlete and Holmes' retirement from his detective agency. The judge also ruled that, "the court finds that the low threshold of originality required for increments of expression counsels toward finding the post-1923 story elements are copyrightable."

"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."

Source: Courthouse News

Image via BBC - from its version of "Sherlock," starring the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch.

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Re: Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain

The Doyle estate is considering appeal and using trademark law to interfere with the ability of the public to use Sherlock how they please. The estate applied or the trademarks, but I don't think they have been granted.

Re: Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain

I am glad this happened. Now we need the Edgar Rice Burrough case in which they are trying o use trademark law to prevent the use of public domain books in derivative works to be ruled in favor of the public domain. That would clear up any public domain usage.

Re: Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain

What's this about re-registering a copyright?  If they can just reset the clock on something going public domain, what's the point of even having one?

Re: Sherlock Holmes in the Public Domain

I believe at that time, copyright was for a certain number of years and could be renewed for an extended period of time. Them re-registering hat particular book's copyright was a formality to move it into the "life plus 50" years term created in the 1978 law.

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