Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sherlock Holmes--Now He's Ours

Welcome to the Public Domain, Sherlock!--and a Mystery Giveaway

By Susan Page Davis

Sherlock Holmes illustration
 by Sidney Paget
(all Holmes illustrations used
in this article are
 in the public domain)
Anyone who wants to can now write a story about Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective of all time. Though Holmes himself didn't actually exist, his popularity and longevity in literature certainly has made history.

I never thought about Sherlock Holmes not being in the public domain. I’ve read several derivative stories about him and seen dozens of movies and televisions shows based on the character. But it seems that until very recently, people who wrote about Holmes had to pay licensing fees or face a lawsuit from the estate of the author, Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

1891 Illustation for The Strand Magazine
by Sidney Paget
In June, however, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that the character Sherlock Holmes and the four novels he appears in, along with 46 of Conan Doyle’s short stories featuring Holmes, are in the public domain. The Conan Doyle estate’s copyright has expired on them.

The ruling came about after the estate threatened in 2011 to sue the editor of an anthology of new original Holmes fiction, inspired by Doyle’s work, that didn’t pay licensing fees. Doyle died in 1930, and his estate has been collecting those fees ever since.

The editor of the anthology, Leslie Klinger, thought the character was in the public domain, but the publisher, Random House, paid the $5,000 fees anyway. When Klinger prepared to publish a second volume, the estate again demanded fees. The new book was to be published by Pegasus Books. The estate told Pegasus that they would not only sue, but would take steps to prevent the book from being distributed by retailers.

Sherlock Homes at work in
"The Adventure of the Second Stain,"
1903 illustration for The Strand
by Sidney Paget
Klinger sued back, and here’s why: Due to various changes in the copyright law over the years, the longest amount of time for stories to be under copyright was 95 years, or the life of the author plus 70 years, depending on the circumstances when it was published. Conan Doyle’s final Holmes story was published in 1923. The last ten stories fell into the questionable period. All the rest of the earlier material was definitely in the public domain.

Part of Klinger’s reasoning was that Sherlock Holmes and the other characters and elements in Conan Doyles’ stories should be free to use. Dr. Watson, along with Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, his famous but mythical address at 221B Baker Street, and other particulars were in the earlier, public domain stories.

Statue of Sherlock Holmes
in London
Klinger argued that he wasn’t infringing on the last ten stories. Some details about Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, are revealed in those ten stories, such has how Holmes felt about dogs and also Dr. Watson’s second marriage. But Klinger’s book wouldn’t touch on those things.

1903 illustration of Holmes
by Frederic Dorr Steele,
for "The Empty House"

A December 2013 ruling found in favor of Klinger, but the estate appealed, seeking greater protection from unlicensed use of the characters. The June ruling on the appeal affirmed Klinger’s—and other writers’—right to use the characters. However, the last 10 stories by Doyle will remain under copyright protection until 2022-23.  In early August, Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner issued an opinion awarding Klinger more than $69,000 in legal fees.

So, if you are yearning to write a Sherlock Holmes story, feel free. He’s ours now! You can read more about the legal case Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate  on these sites:

I’m giving away three digital copies of my own mystery novel set in Maine, Breaking News. My amateur detectives are a newspaper editor and his wife. Leave a comment with your contact information to enter. The drawing will be held Aug. 30. This book is an e-book only, and is 99 cents this month wherever you shop for digital books. It’s a murder mystery and contains a faith thread. Winners here may opt instead for a print copy of Almost Arizona or Finding Marie. Comment below to enter.


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Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner
of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: .


  1. Great article, Susan. I love Sherlock. But it saddens me to think of all the metamorphoses he will suffer at the hands of lesser writers than Doyle. Even though I like The BBC's "Sherlock," for example, it is really not Doyle's Sherlock, but a modern guy with similar brain power. (He's actually more likable, in some respects, than Doyle's Sherlock!) but he lacks the class and finesse of the original.

    1. You're so right, Linore. None of the modern Sherlocks quite live up to the old.

  2. Personally, I hope writers don't go to town with this one. (My comment flew off into cyber space before I could add that.). Thanks for an interesting piece about this.

  3. I really enjoyed your article, Susan. Thanks. Sherlock is a favorite character that carried over from my childhood. Still re-read Doyle's version. Don't care for the portrayal of him on the current TV series, Elementary (he's rather a mental case not an intellectual hero), or him as an action figure at the movies.

    1. Thanks, Linda! Yeah, I gave up on watching that one, though it has some interesting aspects.

  4. Interesting...I have always liked Sherlock. thanks for the chance to win. =) truckredford(at)Gmail(Dot)com

  5. Thank you Susan for a most interesting post!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  6. I would like to win ALMOST ARIZONA! Interesting and little known blog information on copyright laws and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Thanks very much for your post. sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. You're welcome. I was surprised when I first heard there was controversy over it. I'm glad it's settled.

  7. Sharon M is the winner! Thanks, everyone.