December 2013: Ruling

On Monday, December 23, 2013, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled on the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment against the Conan Doyle Estate in a case involving the literary figures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. The Court’s ruling states, in brief, that creators are free to use the characters of Holmes and Watson without licensing them from the Conan Doyle Estate. The Court cautioned that new stories about the pair can’t use elements that appear exclusively in the ten post-1922 stories by Conan Doyle (those that remain in copyright). However, elements from the fifty pre-1923 stories are in the public domain.

The ruling is a victory for the plaintiff Leslie S. Klinger, who sought to establish that the Estate was wrong in claiming that no new stories could be written about Holmes or Watson without the Estate’s permission. “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world,” Klinger said. “This ruling clearly establishes that. Whether it’s a reimagining in modern dress (like the BBC’s Sherlock or CBS-TV’s Elementary), vigorous interpretations like the Warner Bros. fine Sherlock Holmes films, or new stories by countless authors inspired by the characters, people want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle’s heirs.”

“For many years, U.S. motion picture studios, television networks and publishers have accepted without challenge the insupportable position of the Conan Doyle Estate that a paid license was required to create new works based on the pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories,” said Jonathan Kirsch, a member of Klinger’s legal team, who was represented in court by Scott Gilbert of Polcinelli, Inc. “We believe that Les Klinger is the first and only creator who refused to pay for a license that he did not need and challenged the position of the Conan Doyle Estate in court. Thanks to his courage, commitment and vision, the ruling of the District Court represents a clear legal victory, not only for Les and his co-editor, Laurie R. King, but for every creator who seeks to draw on the Canon to create new works.”

Asked to comment about the Court’s limitation regarding the post-1923 stories, Klinger said, “We never disputed that. If an author wants to write about a character that appears only in one of those stories, the Estate’s permission is required. We cherish the remaining 10 stories, and we respect the Estate’s right to control them.”

Looking ahead, Klinger and King plan to complete In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, the subject of the case, a collection of stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon written by major cross-genre authors, to be published by Pegasus Books in 2014. The pair previously edited the acclaimed A Study in Sherlock, a similar collection published by Random House and Poisoned Pen Press in 2012.

Download the full text of the court’s ruling by clicking here, and read more on the New York Times blog.