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17 June 2014Copyright

Court confirms Sherlock Holmes is in public domain

A US appeals court has reaffirmed an earlier ruling that the popular Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain and his character may be used without permission from right holders.

The ruling, issued yesterday, June 16, by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, upheld a decision from earlier this year.

The news means that authors may depict the fictional detective without paying license fees or receiving permission from the right owners, the Conan Doyle Estate.

Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson were created by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1800s. Both were featured in a range of books and later on television and in films.

US copyright law states that works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain, meaning characters in them could theoretically be represented in later works.

The majority of Doyle’s work is already in the public domain. However, 10 of his short stories, published after 1923, continue to have copyright protection.

The initial case, heard at the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, began after US author Leslie Klinger attempted to publish an anthology called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.

After publishing house Pegasus was contacted by the Doyle Estate to sign a licensing agreement, it refused and said it wanted a court to determine whether it could portray the character freely.

In its arguments, the Doyle Estate said the copyright for the remaining ten stories was not due to expire until 2022.

The estate added that the stories contained significant character developments from the earlier works and that any representation of Holmes would constitute infringement of the entire collection.

However, the Seventh Circuit, rejected the claims.

Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote that “most” copyrighted works include “some, and often a great deal of”, public domain material, including words and phrases.

Posner wrote: “The defendant’s [the Doyle Estate’s] proposed rule would also encourage authors to continue to write stories involving old characters in an effort to prolong copyright protection, rather than encouraging them to create stories with entirely new characters”.

“The effect would be to discourage creativity,” he added.

Copyright of Doyle’s works in the UK, where there has been a popular modernised television series based on Sherlock Holmes, expired in 1980.

Klinger told Reuters he was very pleased with the court’s decision.

The Doyle Estate has been contacted for comment on whether it plans to appeal against the latest ruling.

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More on this story

6 January 2014   The organisation which manages copyright protection for the Sherlock Holmes stories has been told authors may be able to use the character in future works without permission.
19 February 2013   A US author has asked a court to wipe any existing copyright protection over fictional crime detective Sherlock Holmes, 83 years after his creator’s death.