Sherlock Holmes Lands in the Public Domain — but Will the Ruling Affect TV Projects Such as CBS’s ‘Elementary’ and BBC’s ‘Sherlock’?

Dec 30, 2013  •  Post A Comment

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is known for his address at 221B Baker Street, but now he has a new residence: the public domain, reports The New York Times’ ArtsBeat.

The famed detective, who is the focus of CBS’s “Elementary,” was ruled to exist in the public domain by a federal judge, who stated that Holmes, Watson, the villain Moriarty and other elements of 50 Holmes works published by Doyle before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by U.S. copyright law. That means the elements can be freely used by others without paying a licensing fee to the estate of the writer, the story notes.

The ruling came after editor Leslie S. Klinger, who has edited Holmes-related books such as the “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” filed a complaint with Laurie R. King, who has written a mystery series featuring Holmes’ wife, Mary Russell.

“Mr. Klinger and Ms. King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Mr. Klinger said that the publisher of ‘In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,’ Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., a business entity organized in Britain, suggesting that the estate would prevent the new book from being sold by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and ‘similar retailers’ unless it received another fee,” The Times reports.

The ruling notes that elements of Holmes stories published after 1923, such as that the detective had a second wife and that Watson played rugby, remain under copyright.

“But the judge rejected what he called the estate’s ‘novel legal argument’ that the characters remain under copyright because, it claimed, they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927,” The Times reports.

All the Sherlock Holmes stories are already in the public domain in the U.K., the story notes.

The Times adds: “The decision comes at a moment when Holmes is a newly lucrative commercial property, thanks to the show ‘Elementary,’ the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ (which is shown in the United States as part of PBS’s ‘Masterpiece’) and the Warner Bros. movie franchise; all three have entered into licensing agreements with the estate.”

The BBC declined to comment on the decision’s impact on its series, while CBS told The Times: “The decision will not affect CBS’s production or distribution of ‘Elementary.’”

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