Elementary, My Dear Watson: Author Seeks to Firmly Establish Sherlock Holmes’ Entry into the Public Domain

Elementary, My Dear Watson: Author Seeks to Firmly Establish Sherlock Holmes’ Entry into the Public Domain

The world's greatest detective could be yours free of licensing fees as a recent complaint seeks to establish the boundaries of Sherlock Holmes' entry into the public domain.

Yesterday, Leslie S. Klinger, the author and editor of multiple Sherlock Holmes' articles and books, filed a declaratory judgment action against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Estate.

Klinger, who is seeking a judgment of non-infringement, intends to publish a book titled, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes (a/k/a Study in Sherlock II), a collection of new and original Sherlock Holmes' stories by contemporary authors.

Conan Doyle's Estate is currently holding up the book's publication, having threatened Pegasus Books, Klinger's publisher. According to the complaint, the Estate contacted Pegasus with the following threat:

If you proceed instead to bring out Study in Sherlock II unlicensed, do not expect to see it offered for sale by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and similar retailers. We work with those company's routinely to weed out unlicensed uses of Sherlock Holmes from their offerings, and will not hesitate to do so with your book as well.

Conan Doyle's collective writings are referred to as the Canon of Sherlock Holmes, which refers to the four novels and fifty-six stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and other related characters and story elements.

Klinger asserts that most of the Canon, along with the related story elements, has passed into the public domain. This excludes The Case-Book of Sherlock-Holmes, published in 1927, which was copyrighted by Conan Doyle's daughter in 1981. Klinger asserts that The Case-Book's copyrights, which end at various times before 2023, have no bearing on the complaint.

"None of the Sherlock Holmes Story Elements first appeared in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes or in the stories that comprise the collection," Klinger says, "and none of the Sherlock Holmes Story Elements are protected by any copyright that may still apply to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes or its constituent stories under U.S. law."

Because In the Company of Sherlock Holmes will not use any storylines, dialogue, characters and character traits that were newly introduced in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Klinger argues that no license is required.

These assertions aren't without precedent. In 2004, the Southern District of New York noted that only nine of Conan Doyle's sixty stories continue to enjoy copyright protection in the United States, with the remainder in the public domain. Only the increments of expression added by the Nine Stories were deemed protected.

"[T]he Holmes and Watson characters have been delineated in over fifty stories that no longer possess copyright protection," the court said. "[J]ust as these many stories have passed into the public domain, so too have their delineated constituent elements, such as the Holmes and Watson characters ...." Pannonia Farms, Inc. v. USA Cable, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23015 (S.D.N.Y. June 7, 2004) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers].

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