It's official: Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to consider a case brought by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, which means the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes stories and characters have officially entered the public domain.

The author's estate petitioned the high court in September, seeking to overturn a Seventh Circuit finding that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before Jan. 1, 1923, have entered the public domain.

Doyle’s heirs had long insisted that publishers, television networks and film studios pay a licensing fee to use the characters and story elements. Many, including Warner Bros. and CBS, complied, but Sherlock Holmes expert Leslie Klinger refused to fork over $5,000 while assembling In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of new stories written by different authors. When the Doyle estate sent a letter to the publisher threatening to block sales of the book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers, Klinger sued.

In a series of legal defeats, the Doyle estate not only lost any claim to the stories but had to endure stinging public reprimands by Judge Richard Posner, who labeled the licensing fees as “a form of extortion” and praised Klinger for performing a “public service” by filing his lawsuit.

The estate had argued -- inventively but unsuccessfully, nonetheless --  that Holmes is a “complex” character who was effectively incomplete until Doyle's final story was published in the United States, leaving the entire body of work protected by copyright. Posner didn't buy that, characterizing the estate’s position as a “very aggressive attempt to enlarge copyright law.”

“We cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration," he wrote in the Seventh Circuit's June decision. "When a story falls into the public domain, story elements — including characters covered by the expired copyright — become fair game for follow-on authors …”

The copyright of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes works expired in 1980 in the United Kingdom. His 10 post-1922 stories enter the public domain in 2022 in the United States, meaning that until then, the estate can still demand a licensing fee from anyone wishes to use those.

(via the Los Angeles Times)

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