Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are Public Domain says Judge
For the past few weeks, a court proceeding has been deciding the fate of the Conan Doyle estate, which argued that if a copyright on the whole character of Sherlock or his assistant was not granted in full, that it would lead to a detective with “multiple personalities,” and would ruin the beloved character.
Recently a federal judge in Illinois had to rule if the character, who first appeared in publication in 1887, was still under copyright protection. The lawsuit has Leslie Klinger, an author, editor and Sherlock Holmes expert who in the past has written the ‘Annotated Sherlock Holmes’, while also contributing to ‘In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,’ to court to battle the estate’s idea of when the copyrighted material would be made available.
Klinger has stated that the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate has threatened her with legal filings because of her work, and now has asked for a judicial declaration to see if the character would fall under public domain as the copyright expires.
The Doyle estate relied on the theory, that the Holmes’ character was developed over time, because of this it would stand aloof from all of from traditional copywriter laws that clearly define when a character was developed, written or created, to begin the copyright process and its expiration.
Most of the stories involving Sherlock Holmes date back to prior to 1923, current U.S. copyright laws allow the life of the author plus 70-95 years after publication. In a ruling (which you can read in full here), the U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo kept things simple for the court, and decided that only clearly defined additions like; dialogue, characters or traits created in post 1923 stories are still protected by copyright.
“It is a bedrock principle of copyright that ‘once work enters the public domain it cannot be appropriated as private (intellectual) property,’ and even the most creative of legal theories cannot trump this tenet,” writes the judge. “Having established that all but the Ten Stories have passed into the public domain, this Court concludes that the Pre-1923 Story Elements are free for public use.”
Some of those additions that are still protected would include Dr. Watson’s second wife and Holmes’ retirement from his detective agency post 1923. The judge felt that these “events,” were clearly defined (unlike some of the traits prior to 1923 that developed over the time and could not be so easily dated) and would still fall under copyright claims.