US court rules on Sherlock Holmes copyright

US court rules on Sherlock Holmes copyright

A US court has ruled that the public can use characters and aspects from Arthur Conan Doyle's pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes' works without charge.

The district court in Illinois made the ruling after a case brought by Leslie S Klinger, the editor of a new book, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, who asked the court to decide on which aspects of the works were in the public domain and could be used without seeking a licence from the Conan Doyle Estate.

In a statement on the Free Sherlock blog following the December 23rd ruling, 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.”

Jonathan Kirsch, a member of Klinger’s legal team, said: “For many years, US motion picture studios, television networks and publishers have accepted without challenge the insupportable position of the Conan Doyle Estate that a paid license was required to create new works based on the pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories.

“We believe that Les Klinger is the first and only creator who refused to pay for a license that he did not need and challenged the position of the Conan Doyle Estate in court. Thanks to his courage, commitment and vision, the ruling of the District Court represents a clear legal victory, not only for Les and his co-editor, Laurie R King, but for every creator who seeks to draw on the canon to create new works.”

The works that are free to use include the four Sherlock Holmes novels and 46 short stories published before 1923. But details that feature exclusively in any of the 10 stories about Holmes published after 1923 are still under copyright, the court ruled.

On the Free Sherlock blog Klinger commented that he never disputed the limitation regarding the post-1923 stories. He said: “If an author wants to write about a character that appears only in one of those stories, the Estate’s permission is required. We cherish the remaining 10 stories, and we respect the Estate’s right to control them."

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes canon, to be published in America by Pegasus Books in 2014. 

The ruling only applies in America, The Guardian said, as all works about Sherlock Holmes by Doyle have been in the public domain in Britain since the end of 2000.