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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

Not So Elementary -- The Sherlock Holmes Copyright Case

Can I write a story about James Bond if I change his martini preference to “stirred not shaken"? Or maybe a little blip about a character named Winnie the Pooh if my character has fur that is a dark shade of brown? Of course not, because these characters are still protected under copyright laws, but I believe these are some of the questions that may be settled by a final judgment regarding the Sherlock Holmes stories.
On December 23, 2013, U.S. District court Judge Rueben Castillo from Illinois held that the copyright’s to all but ten of the stories written by Scottish physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes and his flatmate John Watson were released from copyright protection and are now considered public domain in the United States. The ten stories that were not released from copyright protection were published after 1923 and are therefore protected until 2022.
This case was brought against the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., by author Leslie Klinger who is co-editing “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a book he hopes to publish this fall, which he describes as “a book of original stories featuring characters and other elements from Conan Doyle’s work." In essence, Klinger’s argument is that the entirety of Holmes and Watson’s characters can be found in the novels and stories Doyle wrote before 1923, and he is therefore seeking a declaratory judgment that the characters, character traits, and other story elements be free to copy without infringement.
In an article in the New York Times December 25, 2013, Benjamin W. Allison, a lawyer for the Conan Doyle Estate, said the family was exploring an appeal but emphasized that the ruling did not endanger any existing licensing agreements or the estate’s separate claims under trademark law. The Doyle estate does not deny that the stories published before 1923 are in the public domain, however they do maintain that Doyle’s characters Holmes and Watson should remain protected by copyright laws because they believe the characters are part of a contiguous creation developed by Doyle and should be protected until the final copyrighted Sherlock Holmes stories enter public domain in 2022.
You can read the complete complaint here.
In the same article in the New York Times, Mr. Klinger said he planned to move forward with publishing “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” but added he carefully avoided any post 1923 elements of Holmes and Watson.
Whatever final decision is made, and as you can see in this case, it is not so elementary for Sherlock Holmes; I believe the ruling will essentially determine the fate of many iconic characters from the past, present, and future. I guess we will have to wait to see if the Doyle estate appeals or not or if Mr. Klinger receives the declaratory judgment he is seeking.
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