Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain says Judge Ruben Castillo, according to a Dec. 27 Hollywood Reporter article. In response to threats from original publisher Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate, Leslie Klinger, an author, editor and acclaimed Sherlock Holmes expert filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court, to determine whether or not the popular detective stories were old enough to belong in the public domain.
Yahoo News reports that Sherlock Holmes was first introduced in 1887, and entered into the British public domain many years ago. Under U.S. copyright law, 10 short copyrighted stories in the vast Holmes literary empire had allowed Doyle’s estate to retain intellectual copyrights in the U.S.
According to CNBC News, plaintiff Klinger is the editor of the three-volume “Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and a number of other Holmes-related books. The case arises from “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of new Holmes stories written by various authors and edited by Klinger and Laurie R. King, the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife.
Currently the U.S. copyright term is the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years after publication, whichever is earliest, according to the Hollywood Reporter. In this instance all, except 10 of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories predate 1923. Doyle’s estate argued that because Holmes’ character developed over time, it is impossible to break down the popular detective’s personality into those parts that are copyrightable, and those that are not. They maintained that to deny the estate copyright on the whole character would be to give the detective “multiple personalities.”
In his ruling (read the complete ruling here), Federal Judge Ruben Castillo found that those stories predating 1923 are in the public domain. Writing for the Court, Judge Castillo stated, “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. 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.”
According to Yahoo News, Klinger celebrated Judge Castillo’s ruling by writing on his “Free Sherlock” website, “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world. People want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle’s heirs.”