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In a case that is far from elementary, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division will hear Leslie S. Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. (Case No. 1:13-cv-01226) in which a Sherlock Holmes aficionado and co-editor of a compilation about the Great Detective has filed a 20-page Complaint for Declaratory Judgment questioning the copyright claims of the Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes' creator.
According to articles by bloggers THR, Esq. and Mediabistro.com/galleycat, Klinger and Laurie R. King, his co-editor of A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon (Random House, 2011), contend in their complaint that the fictional sleuth and his trusted colleague Dr. John H. Watson are in the public domain, no longer protected by federal copyright laws [17 U.S.C. secs. 101 et seq.].
The plaintiff is seeking clarification in advance of a new compilation, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, to which prominent mystery writers, including Michael Connelly and Sara Paretsky, are contributing. Klinger, author of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, wants a declaratory judgment from the federal court that the copyright on Holmes, whose first appearance in print was in 1886, has expired, so that the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. is not entitled to licensing fees.
Under current U.S. copyright law, the author's exclusive right to benefit from his work lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years post-publication, whichever is earliest. To stave off copyright infringement litigation, Random House coughed up a license fee to the author's estate when A Study in Sherlock was published, but Klinger is drawing a line in the sand reagarding In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle, a Scottish physician (1859-1930) whose love/hate relationship with Holmes once caused him seemingly to kill off the eccentric crime-solver, wrote most of the Holmes adventures between 1887 and 1927, beginning with A Study in Scarlet. As the THR, Esq. post notes (the crackerjack "TUOL" staff is math-averse), any of the Holmes tomes pre-dating 1923 are probably in the public domain.
Complicating matters for the plaintiff--his Prof. Moriarty, if you will--is a 2004 ruling by Senior Judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York Naomi Reice Buchwald that concluded nine of 60 Holmes adventures by Doyle were still shielded by copyright.
Klinger has acknowledged that some of Doyle's works are still protected, but argues that the characters, including Holmes and Watson, themselves are completely established in the stories already in the public domain and fair game for authors who want to use them in stories today. For example, according to the THR, Esq. post, because reference to Watson as a army veteran appeared 127 years ago in A Study in Scarlet, an author today who wanted to write about Dr. Watson's military exploits could do so without having to pay the Conan Doyle Estate. Elements of the characters may still possibly be subject to copyright restrictions, however.
As Holmes once posited: "[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."