Is Sherlock Holmes Public Domain?

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Techdirt sums up a recent request for courts to declare that Sherlock Holmes is now public domain. Of course, the estate of writer Arthur Conan Doyle wants to claim otherwise, because they’re still making licensing fees from the character. And that’s what drives restrictive intellectual property — there’s nothing easier than letting money roll in from other people’s creativity, over 120 years since the character was first created.

What drove this particular challenge was an upcoming book by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King. The Conan Doyle estate basically threatened blackmail, demanding their license fee or they’d have the book banned from major sales outlets (who understandably don’t want to get in the middle of legal actions). Klinger (who also wrote the notes for The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes) then filed for declaratory judgment in order to convince his publisher to go forward with the project.

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

The estate bases its claim on a small number of the original Holmes stories being under copyright until 2022. However, none of the elements we think of as key to the Sherlock Holmes character or mythos were established in those late stories.

Note that Arthur Conan Doyle himself, when asked by actor and playwright William Gillette if Gillette might change the character’s story by marrying him off, responded, “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.” So he wasn’t nearly so precious about his own creation as his heirs are.


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