A federal judge has ruled that the character of Sherlock Holmes (along with his faithful sidekick Watson and his evil nemesis Moriarty) is now in the public domain under US copyright law.
Holmes was introduced by Scottish author and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the novel A Study in Scarlet published in 1887. Three more novels and 56 short stories followed, with the last published in 1927.
Holmes has appeared in at least hundreds (perhaps thousands) of works in print and other media. According to Guinness World Records, Holmes is the “most portrayed movie character” ever. More than 70 actors have played the part in over 200 films, from Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) to the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which starts a new season on PBS on January 19, 2014.
The copyright for Conan Doyle’s works expired in the UK in 1980. In the US, his works published before 1923 are also in the public domain.
In February of 2013, Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger sought a declaratory judgment that the characters of Holmes and Watson (along with 221B Baker Street and any other story elements first published before January 1, 1923) are also in the public domain.
Klinger and Laurie R. King (author of a mystery series starring Holmes and his wife) were the editors of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of new Holmes stories.
Klinger and King had paid $5,000 to the Conan Doyle estate to license the right to publish a previous Holmes-based collection. The estate demanded an additional fee for the new work.
The estate’s copyright lawyers claimed that the characters remained under copyright protection in the US because they were not “completed” until 1927, when Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story.
In December of 2013, the district court rejected this argument and ruled in Klinger’s favor.