It seems like Sherlock Holmes should be public domain right? It has been a part of public consciousness for so long. It has even been referenced on every television show imaginable from cartoons to dramas to late night sketch shows. And finally the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a judgment holding that much of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” is free for public use.
The saga began last year when Leslie Klinger filed a lawsuit against the Doyle Estate while preparing “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of short stories by contemporary authors inspired by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
However, Doyle’s heirs were not very forthcoming and asserted that Klinger needed a license to publish this work. They even went to far as to convince CBS, BBC, and Warner Bros. to back their claims. Klinger then decided to file the lawsuit saying basically (and this is not a direct quote or anything), “hey now, Sherlock Holmes copyright is old as hell. C’mon guys. Stop being dicks.”
In reality, all but about ten of his Sherlock stories copyrights predate 1923. So, this past December, an Illinois federal judge agreed with Klinger and judged in her favor.
Of course, the Doyle camp did not give up as they so often don’t and are very litigious. The estate attempted to argue that Sherlock is a “complex” character that has evolved over time and that to deny copyright on the whole Sherlock Holmes character would be tantamount to giving the famous detective “multiple personalities.”
7th Circuit Judge, Richard Posner was not buying it. He rejected their claim saying,
“We cannot find any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration,” writes Judge Posner. “When a story falls into the public domain, story elements — including characters covered by the expired copyright — become fair game for follow-on authors, as held in Silverman v. CBS Inc.”