Judge rules that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain
Time to dust off all your Sherlock fanfic and self-publish it up on Amazon.
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 like CBS’s “Elementary,” set in contemporary Manhattan. 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 United States copyright law, and can therefore be freely used by others without paying any licensing fee to the writer’s estate.
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Mr. Klinger and Ms. King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Mr. 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 another fee.
Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, stated that elements introduced in Holmes stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath, or had a second wife — remain under copyright in the United States. (All of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain in Britain.)
But the judge rejected what he called the estate’s “novel legal argument” that the characters remain under copyright because, it claimed, they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927.
“Klinger and the public may use the pre-1923 story elements without seeking a license,” the judge wrote.
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