Sherlock Holmes has entered the public domain. After being published by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the series is now no longer under copyright. Or most of it isn’t, at least.
Federal judge Ruben Castillo ruled that all of the Sherlock Holmes stories written before the year 1923 have entered the public domain. The 10 or so stories written after that date — which include storylines like Dr. Watson’s second wife and Sherlock Holmes’ retirement — will still remain under copyright.
This decision was made after author Leslie Klinger wrote the book “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and contributed to the anthology “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” and was then threatened by Doyle’s estate. Klinger went to get a judicial declaration saying that, by copyright law, the Sherlock Holmes stories belong in public domain.
The traditional law is that copyright life ends 95 years after publication or after the life of the author plus 70 years (whichever comes first). But Doyle’s estate argued that the books should not be considered fair game until the last one came out in 1927, meaning they should still be under copyright. Castillo thought otherwise.
“It is a bedrock principle of copyright that ‘once work enters the public domain it cannot be appropriated as private (intellectual) property,’ and even the most creative of legal theories cannot trump this tenet,” he writes. “Having established that all but the Ten Stories have passed into the public domain, this Court concludes that the Pre-1923 Story Elements are free for public use.”
Sherlock Holmes remains a constant presence in our pop culture. From the continued popularity of shows like “Sherlock” and “Elementary” to the recent Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the stories continue to capture the imaginations of many storytellers and viewers. It will be exciting to see what comes out of the tales of Sherlock Holmes now that so many of them are available for public use.