A little over three years ago, we had a discussion concerning whether or not Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain
. By our understanding of the law, the character absolutely is in the public domain. There is one remaining book
-- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
-- which contains a few stories, that are still covered by copyright, but the characters and most of the written works, are in the public domain. However, the legal representatives of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate use the fact that one book is still held under copyright to argue that the character is still protected until (at least) 2023. Of course, as with things like Happy Birthday
, even if it should be in the public domain, if there's some corporate entity insisting that it's covered by copyright, you'd have to go to court to prove otherwise. And most people don't want to bother.
Thankfully, that just changed when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes scholar, Leslie S. Klinger, was working on a book (with Laurie R. King) called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes
, detailing "major mystery/sci-fi/fantasy authors inspired by the Holmes tales." However, the Conan Doyle Estate contacted their publisher, Pegasus Books, demanding a license fee, and saying if they weren't paid, they'd make sure that no major distributors would sell the book. Specifically, the estate directly threatened that:
If you proceed instead to bring out Study in Sherlock II unlicensed, do not expect to see it offered for sale by Amazon, Barnes Noble, and similar retailers. We work with those company's routinely to weed out unlicensed uses of Sherlock Holmes from their offerings, and will not hesitate to do so with your book as well.
Like too many publishers, Pegasus freaked out and refused to publish the book at all, so Klinger has taken it upon himself to file for declaratory judgment
. You can see the full filing posted here
(and embedded it below).
The lawsuit points out that Sherlock Holmes characters have long been in the public domain, and even that remaining book of stories includes two that are clearly in the public domain, as they were published prior to 1923. But, most importantly "none of the Sherlock Holmes Story Elements first appeared in any of the stories that were collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes." In other words, the entirety of copyright protected elements in the character were published outside of that one book, and are now in the public domain.
The lawsuit also notes that Klinger and King's publisher on an earlier book, A Study in Sherlock
did, in fact, pay a license to the estate, but they did not concede any of the legal arguments. When the estate threatened Klinger, he correctly explained that no license was needed, but he's still dealing with the fallout from his publisher getting cold feet. Thus, he's asking the court to state, definitively, that the character is in the public domain. Kudos for Klinger for taking this on. We need more people willing to stand up for the public domain. Also, jeers to Pegasus for not being the one to take this on and for freaking out over the bogus threat. Permalink
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