What aspects of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic creation, can the writer’s estate still protect? Not much, according to a complaint filed in a U.S. District Court in Chicago, seeking a declaratory judgment against Doyle’s estate, aseserting that none of the aspects of his contemporary Holmes-inspired works are still copyright protected and, instead, that they have fallen into the public domain.
Doyle wrote four novels and 56 stories with Holmes, his sidekick, Watson, and other characters and creative elements that make up what the complaint refers to as the “Canon of Sherlock Holmes.” All those works were published before 1923, except 1927’s The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (some stories in this volume were published before 1923 while a few were published after). Pursuant to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, works published before 1923 are in the public domain and all creative elements, therein, are free for use.
Plaintiff, an accomplished Holmes scholar named Leslie S. Klinger, wants to publish a new collection of original stories by contemporary authors, inspired by and featuring creative elements of the Holmes canon. Klinger asserts that his book, In The Company of Sherlock Holmes, took only those aspects of the canon published before 1923, and, thus, were rights free. Doyle’s estate caught wind of Klinger’s book and sought a licensing arrangement.
Based on a prior suit involving analogous claims, Klinger may be on course to prevail, because his book included only canonical elements in the public domain, i.e. published pre-1923. Had Klinger tapped any original story elements from the 1927 work, he would need consent and likely would have to pay a license fee to the estate. He did that with an earlier book, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, in which he republished stories from The Case-Book. Here, there was no such republication nor has it been asserted that there had been any taking at all of the original elements in the post-1923 work.