Sherlock Holmes loses copyright

By Andrew Hudson Published: December 28, 2013 Updated: December 9, 2014

Do fictional characters enter the public domain based on when they were first introduced, or when they were last developed? Now we know: it’s the former, thanks to the almost-a-detective-novel, Sherlock Holmes and the public domain.

“… the public may use the pre-1923 story elements without seeking a license.”
Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, 2013

The famous detective was first introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. U.S. copyright law has a cutoff date of 1923, so Holmes should be in the public domain. But the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has claimed exclusive rights in the character since some books were written after 1923. Authors and movie-makers who wished to use the Holmes character have been paying a license fee, due to the legal uncertainty.

But author Leslie Klinger took the issue to court — and won. Sherlock Holmes now belongs to all of us and the estate can’t charge a license fee — except for dialogue, characters and traits newly introduced in the post-1923 stories which are protected by copyright.

“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.”
Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, 2013


Sources: Hollywood Reporter, New York Times. Image credit: Warner Brothers.

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