Judge says Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, but Conan Doyle estate fights on

A federal judge ruled that the characters of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and many others from Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are in the public domain, but the Conan Doyle estate says Sherlock Holmes still isn't free for use.

Alex Bailey/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
'Sherlock Holmes' stars Robert Downey Jr. (l.) and Rachel McAdams (r.).

A US district judge recently ruled that legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson reside in the public domain, meaning those who want to write new Holmes stories or craft TV or movie adaptations about the sleuths no longer need to apply to the estate of original “Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle – as long as they don't draw on material from any of Doyle's latest writings about Holmes.

We reported this past spring on the civil complaint filed by author Leslie S. Klinger, who is the editor behind “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” as well as other works related to the detective. Klinger filed the complaint after the Conan Doyle estate informed Pegasus Books, the publisher of the short story collection “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” which Klinger edited, that it would prevent “Company” from being sold by retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble unless Pegasus paid the estate a licensing fee for the use of the characters. 

The issue arises in the US because the last 10 Holmes stories were released in America after Jan. 1, 1923. According to US law, works published after 1923 do not enter the public domain until 70 years after the life of the author. But Klinger argued that characters like Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty were well developed in works that appeared before 1923 and so authors or others wishing to use the characters and parts of the stories that don't appear exclusively in those 10 stories should be free to do so without paying a fee to the Conan Doyle estate.

The Illinois federal court that ruled on the case decided that Sherlock, Watson, and elements of many of the stories are indeed in the public domain, and that it is only details from the stories published after Jan. 1, 1923, that cannot yet be freely used.

However, the Conan Doyle estate says this isn’t the end of the matter. During the case, the lawyer representing the estate, Benjamin Allison, posited that Conan Doyle was not finished creating the characters of Holmes, Watson, and others until those last stories were published.

Castillo’s decision allows authors and others to use Holmes, Watson, and other Conan Doyle characters in works as long as details or characters introduced in those last 10 stories (like Watson’s second wife) aren’t mentioned. However, Publishers Weekly writer Andrew Albanese cautions that courts could be ambiguous in their judgments as to whether or not a character was fully "completed" before 1923, possibly leaving writers drawing on the Holmes characters at risk of a lawsuit.

As Castillo wrote in his decision, "[The] Conan Doyle [estate] fails to offer a bright line rule or workable legal standard for determining when characters are sufficiently developed to warrant copyright protection through an entire series."

Allison told PW that the estate is considering an appeal of Castillo’s decision.

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