In the more than 125 years since he first appeared, Sherlock Holmes has popped up everywhere from fan fiction set in outer space to screen adaptations like CBS’s “Elementary,” set in contemporary Manhattan. 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 Arthur Conan Doyle published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by United States copyright law and can be freely used by creators without paying any licensing fee to the Conan Doyle estate.
The ruling came in response to a civil complaint filed in February by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “The Complete 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 Mr. Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife.
Mr. Klinger and Ms. King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Mr. Klinger said that the publisher of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., a business entity organized in Britain, suggesting 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 the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, rejected the estate’s claim that the characters and the basic Holmes story line themselves remain under copyright, since they were not truly completed until Conan Doyle stopped writing. The judge did caution, however, that elements introduced in the 10 stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath — remain protected.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Klinger said he planned to go forward with “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” which he said carefully avoids any post-1923 elements. He also praised the ruling for opened the way to other creators, many of whom had paid licensing fees to the estate but rallied to Mr. Klinger’s cause under the Twitter hashtag #FreeSherlock.
“Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world, and this ruling clearly establishes that,” he said. “People want to celebrate Holmes and Watson, and now they can do that without fear.”
Benjamin Allison, a lawyer for the Conan Doyle estate, said it was exploring an appeal but asserted that the ruling did not imperil any existing licensing agreements or the estate’s separate claims under trademark law.
Mr. Allison also reiterated the estate’s claim that the “highly delineated” Holmes and Watson characters depend on elements introduced in the post-1923 stories, which remain protected.
“Those stories are set at a variety of points in Sherlock’s fictional life, not just the end of his life,” he said. “They develop the two men’s characters in ways that almost any use of the characters depends on.”