Free Sherlock!

Sherlock Holmes - The Man with the Twisted Lip
A civil action was filed today in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate by Sherlock Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger. Klinger seeks to have the Court determine that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson are no longer protected by federal copyright laws and that writers, filmmakers, and others are free to create new stories about Holmes, Watson, and others of their circle without paying license fees to the current owners of the remaining copyrights.

Klinger says that the litigation came about because he and Laurie R. King, best-selling author of the “Mary Russell” series of mysteries that also feature Sherlock Holmes, were co-editing a new book called “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.”  This collection of stories by major mystery/sci-fi/fantasy authors inspired by the Holmes tales, is to be published by Pegasus Books. “The Conan Doyle Estate contacted our publisher,” says Klinger, “and implied that if the Estate wasn’t paid a license fee, they’d convince the major distributors not to sell the book. Our publisher was, understandably, concerned, and told us that the book couldn’t come out unless this was resolved.

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws. However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.

“This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators,” Klinger adds. “It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Klinger denies that he was trying to strip the Estate of its proper rights. “The Estate still owns copyrights in the U.S. on 10 of the stories about Holmes—some of the stories that appeared in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. As a lawyer myself, I respect those rights, and in fact I licensed them when I published my New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.”

All of the remaining 10 stories will be in the public domain after 2022, 95 years after the last was published.

Klinger is represented by Scott M. Gilbert of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLC in Chicago, who serves as litigation counsel, and Jonathan Kirsch in Los Angeles, an intellectual property attorney specializing in publishing issues.

“Les Klinger is the ideal plaintiff to undertake this praiseworthy effort to confirm the public-domain status of the iconic characters and settings of the Sherlock Holmes Canon and remove the cloud of fear, uncertainty and doubt that the Estate has used to scare off others,” says Kirsch.  “As a world-renowned expert and an acclaimed author, he is willing to champion a cause that others have been too timid to undertake.  Authors, movie-makers and other creative people owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Klinger and Laurie R. King previously edited A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon (Random House, 2011), a collection of new stories written by Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Maron, and other contemporary writers. Their second collection, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, will feature new stories by Sara Paretsky, Michael Connelly, Lev Grossman, Larry Niven, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Cornelia Funke, Jeffery Deaver, and other major writers. Some of the stories are new adventures of Holmes and Watson; others are about people inspired or influenced by the Holmes stories of Conan Doyle.

To download this information as a PDF, click here.

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27 thoughts on “Free Sherlock!

  1. Pingback: Free Sherlock! « qui est in literis

  2. Pingback: Scholar Sues Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Over Sherlock Holmes Copyright - GalleyCat

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  4. Pingback: Scholar Sues Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Over Sherlock Holmes Copyright - GalleyCat

  5. Unfortunately, the legal system may be only way to get these issues under discussion, not only for Doyle, but for other authors as well. Let’s hope that one way or the other, the matter is put to rest (although I’m not holding my breath). In the end, we must obey the law; but hard cases make bad law. Who knows where the equities ultimately lie? Even in a “good” example of copyright protection, and “good” use of assigned royalties, such as the case with Barrie’s “Peter Pan” supporting the Great Ormond Street Hospital, we have had the untoward dispute between them and Disney over what may be called pastiches. Perhaps Klinger v Doyle Estate will write a new chapter in the esoteric tome of copyright law.
    David R. McCallister,
    Baker Street Bar Association,
    Wesley Chapel, Florida

  6. Please open a Paypal account for donations to this legal fund! I, and no doubt many others, would like to support this noble & timely cause. Game on…

  7. As an aspiring writer, I sincerely hope that you are successful in ending this problem. The idea that characters in stories that are 90+ years old are protected by law is not only ridiculous, but unhealthy and unnatural for the advancement of future works. The Estate’s actions remind me of mafia-style protection rackets. I hope that you take them to the cleaners.

  8. Too many times the kind pressure exerted on creators for use of what should be public domain material by supposed copyright holders to extract a fee works because the fee demanded is often less than what would be required to pursue a fair legal solution. So the creator pays the fee as the lesser of two evils. Kudos to Mr. Klinger for standing up to the bullying and opening up the beloved characters of Sherlock and Dr. Watson to a greater public through–hopefully–newly freed authors and film makers and other creators.

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  12. After reading the Complaint, I find Exhibit A, the “elements”,fascinating. I assume that these elements are the only items which Mr. Klinger et al. feel have been used from the Canon in their own works. Some of them, such as Irene Adler, and Prof. Moriarty have been re-used by other authors. What is the state of copyright control by these other authors? May C. N. Douglas sue for use of Irene Adler – or only for Penelope Huxleigh? What if additional “elements” are added to a character who is only sparingly described in the Canon?
    Do I assume correctly that the Defendants have 20 days to Answer before Default? That would be in the neighborhood of March 6-10, depending upon the Service of Summons, wouldn’t it? Would Default serve the Defendants by limiting any
    David R. McCallister,
    Baker Street Bar Association
    Wesley Chapel, FL

  13. Here here! It is about time the estate lost their control. Holmes belongs to the people now! I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the Sherlockian universe is rooting for you Les!

  14. Pingback: Sherlok Holmes: Legal Thriller at the Intersection of Copyright and Trademark Law |

  15. The following will undoubtedly be an unpopular opinion here, but it is an issue which I feel strongly about and I believe deserves some consideration.

    I will never understand any writer who feels the need to reuse the characters of another author. Whilst there is certainly enough material work available for a facsimile of Holmes and Watson to be presented in new works, as the act of creation itself defines the character it is impossible for a new author to ever perfectly know the character as the original author knew them. What happens then is a dilution of the original as the canon is expanded and embellished. With each new author bringing their own slight amendment to the voice and persona of the original fictional icon. Given a hundred years, this meddling will bring Holmes and Watson to a point utterly unrecognisable from the original creation and then a reboot will be required creating a dreadful, unholy and absurd mess. Critics will point to the fact that the original works will always be available, but this is to ignore the real possibility that the public consciousness of the characters will have been irrevocably changed by that point and therein lies my principle concern and objection to such reuse.

    Would it not be better for today’s authors of talent to seek to create their own iconic characters, that future generations can look back to with reverence? Thus leaving the world a greater and more enriched place and in doing so maybe the authors name will too be remembered with the same admiration as is Conan Doyle’s today.

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  17. Given David McCallister’s estimate, above, of the likely time for a response from the CD estate, it seems that an update on developments would be timely, about now. Anything to report?

  18. Given David McCallister’s estimate of the likely time for a response from the CD estate, it appears that an update of some sort might be possible about now… is there anything to report?

  19. Thank you for an interesting article. But what about non-Holmes ACD works. Like “Tales of Terror and Mystery” has its copyright expired?

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