Holmes and Copyright: A Just Decision

Holmes & Watson in Silver Blaze

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition filed by Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., a UK company, that had requested that the Court hear its appeal from the order of the U.S. Court of Appeals (7th Circuit) in the case of Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. As a result, the opinion of the 7th Circuit, found on the www.free-sherlock.com website, stands as the expression of the law on the subject of the copyright status of the characters of Holmes and Watson. In brief, it held that while the original “story elements” that appear exclusively in ten of the Canonical stories (those that appear in the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, with the exception of “Thor Bridge” and “The Mazarin Stone,” both first published before 1923) remain protected by U.S. copyright laws, those elements that do not are in the “public domain,” that is, free of U.S. copyright protection. All 60 of the Canonical stories are free of copyright protection outside of the U.S.

The decision has been hailed as “freeing” Sherlock Holmes from copyright restrictions. In the past, the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., has vigorously sought to prohibit any use of the characters of Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Professor Moriarty, and others from the Canon in any new works unless a license fee was paid. The 7th Circuit opinion affirmed that such a position is contrary to law, so long as creators avoid using those elements that appear exclusively in the protected tales. Klinger argued that the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., was violating existing law, and the 7th Circuit agreed that it was the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., that was seeking to change the law, not Klinger.

The Baker Street Irregulars previously gave Les Klinger the “Intrepid Irregular” award for his principled stand in pursuing this litigation and applauds the Supreme Court’s ruling, bringing this historic case to a just conclusion. Note, however, that the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., has announced that it will continue to scrutinize new works carefully for violations of its rights.

Michael F. Whelan
Head of the Baker Street Irregulars
November 23, 2014