To whom does beloved literary detective Sherlock Holmes really belong?
According to Holmes fan Leslie S. Klinger, everyone.
Klinger filed a civil complaint stating that because the "Holmes" characters and many of the stories were first published before 1923, the fees many have paid to the Conan Doyle estate for use of the characters are unnecessary because Holmes and his exploits are in the public domain in the US. Klinger requests that the court state that the elements of the “Holmes” stories are indeed in the public domain.
Klinger, who is also the editor of “Annotated Sherlock Holmes” as well as the mind behind other Holmes-related works, filed the complaint in Illinois on Feb. 14. According to his complaint, she was motivated to file it after the Conan Doyle estate told publisher Pegasus Books that it would stop a book titled “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” from being sold by companies like Barnes & Noble and Amazon unless Pegasus paid the estate a licensing fee. “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” was edited by Klinger and features stories about the detective by authors like Laurie R. King.
Klinger said he paid $5,000 to the estate when he released a similar compilation titled “A Study in Sherlock” in 2011. “I didn’t want to pay it then,” he told The New York Times, saying of the current request, “Enough is enough. This time it was really too big a threat.”
Ten of the “Holmes” stories were released in the US post-1923, but the rest came out before then.
Klinger’s action has caused controversy in the Holmes fan community. “The suit has wreaked havoc,” assistant professor at Whittier Law School Betsy Rosenblatt told The New York Times.
Darlene Cypser, who wrote a trilogy about a juvenile Sherlock Holmes, said she’s in full support of Klinger’s actions.
“They’ve heard about the way the estate is going around bullying people,” Cypser said of fans in an interview with The New York Times. “This has been coming for some time. I’m glad Les decided to take it up.”
However, lawyer for the Conan Doyle estate Benjamin Allison said there’s little room for negotiation.
“The character Sherlock Holmes is protected by copyright,” he told The New York Times. “Holmes is a unified literary character that wasn’t completely developed until the author laid down his pen.”
The detective in the deerstalker hat is of course still a hot cultural property, with two successful TV shows (the BBC’s “Sherlock” and the CBS show “Elementary”) going strong and a successful reboot of the stories starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law having raked in high box office grosses in movie theaters.
A recent new Holmes story, this one sanctioned by the estate, by Anthony Horowitz titled “The House of Silk,” garnered positive reviews.