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.
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.
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.