Sherlock Holmes Officially Public Domain

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Yay! One of the best-known characters worldwide is now officially in the public domain. (I’m not trying to “steal” property from literary heirs, but I do think that a character that first appeared 126 years ago has had plenty of time under ownership.) A judge has ruled,

“stating that Holmes, Watson, 221B Baker Street, the dastardly Professor Moriarty, and other elements included in the 50 Holmes works that Arthur Conan Doyle published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by United States copyright law, and can therefore be freely used by others without paying any licensing fee to the writer’s estate.”

Note that “all of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain in Britain” (and have been since 2000). The US was one of the few places where the Conan Doyle Estate was still making money from these long-ago-created works. While the 10 last stories are still under copyright, most of what makes Holmes Holmes to readers is now available for anyone to use. The judge rejected the idea that “the characters remain under copyright because, [the Estate] claimed, they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927.” (Techdirt has the full ruling.) The Estate plans to continue pursuing claims of trademark.

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

This is intriguing, of course, when it comes to comics, which is the land of the never-ending story for long-time properties and brands … although reboots and relaunches put the lie to the idea that these are still the same characters created as far back as 1938, so a publisher would have a difficult time making that argument. They hold their control due to “work made for hire” laws, which are a whole ‘nother subject.

Back to Holmes. As commenters point out, copyright is intended to be of limited time span in order to benefit society as well as the artist. But when money flows to heirs, who didn’t actually create anything, they tend to get greedy. They should have known better than to take on a lawyer.

It’ll be interesting to see whether ongoing projects, such as the CBS show Elementary (which has a clause acknowledging the Estate in the credits), will continue to operate under existing agreements (and thus payments). The Warner Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC’s Sherlock series also have agreements with the Estate. As big media companies, they likely saw payment as worth it for removing potential legal liabilities. But big media companies — like Disney, which has made so many movies based on non-owned folktales and the like — also like free, already-known-to-audiences content.


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