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Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Public Domain

January 1, 2014

As of a court ruling last week, Sherlock Holmes has been declared to be in the public domain.

Sherlock Holmes is in the Public Domain, American Judge Rules (New York Times. 12/27)

A judge just gave an elementary lesson on copyright to the owners of Sherlock Holmes. (Washington Post, 12/27)

Sherlock Holmes is public property… but steer clear of Watson’s second wife. (The Guardian, 12/27)

Are you having the same thoughts I had, when I first skimmed the stories? “But I thought Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain!” That’s somewhat true: All of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are in the public domain in Britain. And then there’s the matter of ” but steer clear of Watson’s second wife.”

In United States law, works registered or first published in the United States before 1923 are now in the public domain.

Here’s how the Guardian sums it up:

Most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation already is in the public domain. This includes anything in the four novels and 46 short stories published prior to 1923. Conan Doyle imitators may legally create anything derived from that substantial stash.

That covers a significant number of Holmes stories. But that leaves 10 stories still covered by copyright. Doyle’s estate argued that those copyrighted stories included influential details.

See the New York Times story:

Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, stated that elements introduced in Holmes stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath, or had a second wife — remain under copyright in the United States. (All of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain in Britain.)

But the judge rejected what he called the estate’s “novel legal argument” that the characters remain under copyright because, it claimed, they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927.

Now, just from a look at my bookshelf, I can see any number of authors telling adapted stories of Holmes and Watson’s adventures. While one of these novels, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, is the only one on that list approved by the Doyle estate. The estate has also approved a Young Sherlock series by Andrew Lane. (I read the first one, and was underwhelmed.)

What about the countless other authors who have used and adapted Holmes? Did each one pay a fee to Doyle’s estate? I don’t know yet, but I plan to see what I can find out.

I wish all this had transpired this time last year, as I was getting ready to take my information policy class, or that I had thought of doing my information policy paper on the intricacies of Sherlock Holmes and copyright regulation.

It will be interesting to see if anything more gets determined.

The game is afoot!


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