An Appeals Court Has Ruled That Most Of Sherlock Holmes Is In The Public Domain

06.16.14 9 Comments


We’ve been kind of flooded with Sherlock Holmes-inspired projects over the past decade or so, from actual takes on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories (BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary, the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies) to takes inspired by them (House, most notably, and shows like Psych and The Mentalist to a lesser degree), which makes this news pretty interesting: the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an earlier ruling that most of the Sherlock Holmes canon is in the public domain. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of copyright law, this means that a large part of the Conan Doyle Estate’s intellectual property rights to the character have expired, and you, me, or whoever the hell can start publishing Sherlock Holmes stories without paying them licensing fees. (Fees that, The Hollywood Reporter points out, have been paid until now by the BBC, CBS, and Warner Bros. for the three projects in the first parentheticals.)

But, there are a few limitations. Only the rights to the older work have expired, meaning any more recent changes to the character or story could conceivably be covered. Or, to be more specific (emphasis mine)…

“There are the early Holmes and Watson stories, and the late ones, and features of Holmes and Watson are depicted in the late stories that are not found in the early ones… Only in the late stories for example do we learn that Holmes’s attitude toward dogs has changed—he has grown to like them—and that Watson has been married twice. These additional features, being (we may assume) ‘original’ in the generous sense that the word bears in copyright law, are protected by the unexpired copyrights on the late stories.”

Oh, great.

[throws out screenplay for 221 Barker Street, in which Watson is a twice-married talking beagle who helps Sherlock solve a mysterious jewel heist at Buckingham Palace]

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