Freed Sherlock

A US court in Illinois has found in favour of Leslie S. Klinger in what promises to be a landmark case in terms of copyright.

Annotated Sherlock Holmes

Klinger, who edited The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, argued that writers and other artists should have the right to use Holmes and Watson without needing to pay a licence fee to the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The case was apparently inspired by the estate’s request that Klinger and his co-editor Laurie S. King pay a $5,000 licence fee to use the Holmes and Watson characters in a collection of new short stories.

Holmes and Watson (but not the ten post-1923 Conan Doyle stories) have now been ruled to be in the public domain, despite the estate’s argument that the characters were not completely finished until the final story was published. Aspects of the characters which appeared after 1923 (such as Watson’s second wife) are still in copyright.

Klinger said:

Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world. 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.

Incidentally, it appears that the BBC has paid the licence fee for Sherlock, as have the makers of the CBS show Elementary and Guy Ritchie for his recent films.

It seems to me (I’m no expert) that this ruling also brings Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence into the public domain in the US. Can a reimagining of the characters be far behind?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey should follow them into the public domain shortly, although let’s hope nobody notices.

See also: The New York Times blog discussion about the ruling.


About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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11 Responses to Freed Sherlock

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Oh, Rich, I’m not sure i’m ready for a re-imagining of Wimsey, Poirot, Marple or the Beresfords. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this.


  2. Very interesting story, and very interesting legal point. I’m not sure what my views are on this one, and I guess we just wait and see what will happen.


  3. Well, there was that talk a while ago about a Disney “Young Miss Marple” that seems to have died a death. Let’s hope there’s no revival there.

    Hopefully, as the bulk of the Poirot et al stories are well past the watershed date, this ruling wouldn’t apply to them. Besides, it would take a brave TV producer to make any sort of non-Suchet Poirot for a long time… Of course, with Sophie Hannah’s approved Poirot novel on the way, this might open the gates for a deluge of unofficial ones.


    • westwoodrich says:

      I hadn’t heard of the Young Miss Marple idea, but I’d wondered if that’s the direction Sophie Hannah might take with Poirot. But hopefully not as bad as Young Sherlock: If nothing else, that proved the estate weren’t too choosy 🙂


      • It was about two years ago and I’ve heard nothing since… cross your fingers.

        And I think the Hannah Poirot is supposed to be classic Poirot – no silliness. But I could be wrong…


  4. I confess to being not really happy about this – I’m a purist about my classic detectives, and won’t watch any of the current Marple adaptations on our ITV channel because of the changes – in fact, I’m still livid that they’ve introduced her into Endless Night!!! I shall stick to the originals – I used to think I would read authorised new works, but I’m not sure I’ll even do that because the only reason I can see for having a new Poirot story is simply cash. I do hope they leave Wimsey alone…


  5. Thanks Rich – fascinating to see how this played out. It is absurd for them to talk as if the Doyle estate were trying to ‘suppress’ their work (though they they have always been known to be quite aggressive in asserting their rights, which in fairness is what they were) as there are trademarks in place for the characters rather than specific works (these are acknowledged in the end of credits for ELEMENTARY for example though Doyle doesn’t get a mention otherwise) and they simply cannot pretend that they didn’t know this. But Doyle died in 1930 so the basic 70 year post mortem rule is well and truly up for the stories, unlike say Agatha Christie’s as her copyright stays in place until 2046.


  6. westwoodrich says:

    Thanks Sergio. The Conan Doyle Estate website says (as of 29th December): ‘We own United States copyrights in the works still under copyright protection in the U.S., and also own United States trademark and common law rights in the name and image of Sherlock Holmes and other of Sir Arthur’s characters.’

    No idea where that leaves Klinger – presumably this decision trumps the trademark too?

    I’ve been trying to work out – just by looking at a couple of websites, admittedly – if the post mortem rule applies in the US, and if it doesn’t, how would any unofficial Christie books (as an example) be kept out of the UK?


  7. westwoodrich says:

    Update on this from the Estate’s lawyers, who say ‘The ruling […] appeared not to acknowledge the basic copyright rule that highly delineated characters are entitled to their own copyright. The Estate hopes to appeal the decision so that Sherlock Holmes and many other significant characters created over a series of novels or stories receive protection for the full copyright term intended by Congress.


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