Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the public domain

In the more than 125 years since he first appeared, Sherlock Holmes has popped up everywhere from fan fiction set in outer space to adaptations like CBS's Elementary, set in contemporary New York. But now, following a legal ruling, the deerstalker-wearing detective is headed to another destination: the public domain.

A federal judge has issued a declarative judgment stating that Holmes, Watson, 221B Baker Street, the dastardly Professor Moriarty and other elements included in the 50 Holmes works that Arthur Conan Doyle published before January 1, 1923, are no longer covered by US copyright law, and can therefore be freely used by others without paying any licensing fee to the writer's estate.

The ruling came in response to a civil complaint filed in February by Leslie S Klinger, editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and a number of other Holmes-related books. The complaint stemmed from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of new Holmes stories written by different authors and edited by Klinger and Laurie R King, herself the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes's wife.

Klinger and King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Klinger said the publisher, Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd, a business entity 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.

Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, stated that elements introduced in Holmes stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath, or had a second wife — remain under copyright in the United States. (All of the Holmes stories are in the public domain in Britain.)

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