Sherlock Holmes belongs to the public, U.S. court rules

Mon Jun 16, 2014 2:38pm EDT
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By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - Fifty Sherlock Holmes works published before 1923 by Arthur Conan Doyle are in the public domain, a U.S. appeals court said on Monday, and others may refer to them freely without paying licensing fees to the Scottish writer's estate.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said U.S. copyright law did not cover earlier works depicting the brilliant detective, including references to Holmes, his sidekick Dr. Watson, his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, 221B Baker Street, and even Holmes' cocaine use.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Richard Posner said there was no basis to extend U.S. copyrights beyond their expiration.

He said only Conan Doyle's last 10 Holmes works, which were published between 1923 and 1927 and have copyrights expiring after 95 years, deserved protection. Conan Doyle died in 1930.

"When a story falls into the public domain, story elements - including characters covered by the expired copyright - become fair game for follow-on authors," Posner wrote.

To rule for the estate, he said, would encourage authors to write more stories with old characters. "The effect would be to discourage creativity," he wrote.

The decision was a victory for Leslie Klinger, editor of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes" and other Holmes books.

Klinger had paid the estate a $5,000 licensing fee for a prior work but sued after refusing to pay another fee for a compendium of new Holmes stories that he and co-editor Laurie King were editing, "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes."   Continued...

A life-size bronze figure of British author Arthur Conan Doyle's character, the detective Sherlock Holmes created by artist John Doubleday 1988 is pictured on the main square in the town of Meiringen, some 100 km (62 miles) south east of the Swiss capital Bern July 6, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann