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Elementary, My Dear Writer: Sherlock Holmes Is Public Domain

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on December 30, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One Sherlock Holmes enthusiast uncovered a great copyright mystery: Whether Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. Central to the mystery is how evolving literary characters like Sherlock Holmes fit into our copyright laws.

The court applied the "elementary" tenets of public domain law to solve the mystery.

Public Domain and #FreeSherlock

Under U.S. copyright law, work published before January 1, 1923 enters the public domain, meaning everyone can use the material without getting the copyright owner's permission or paying licensing fees. All but about 10 of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories predate 1923, reports The Hollywood Reporter.

Leslie Klinger, an author, editor and Sherlock Holmes expert sought a declaratory judgment against the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that most of the stories and characters in the Holmes canon were old enough that they belonged in the public domain. Many other creators paid fees to the estate but had rallied to Klinger's cause under the Twitter hashtag #FreeSherlock.

But the Doyle estate countered with an interesting argument that characters like Sherlock Holmes don't fit the rule because they are always evolving.

Characters of Evolving Complexity

Attorneys for the Doyle estate argued that it would be impossible to piece apart the detective's personality into both under- and not-under-copyright parts (into pre- and post-1923 parts) because Holmes' character was developed over time, according to the Reporter.

Because Sherlock Holmes had a "complex background and maturing emotions," denying the estate a copyright on the whole character would give the detective "multiple personalities," the estate argued.

But U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo rejected the argument and ruled that only expression -- dialogue, characters and traits -- newly introduced by those post-1923 stories are protected by copyright. Of course, the same goes for plot points and events, too.

That means, my dear Watson, Sherlock Holmes is essentially in the public domain. You can now celebrate Holmes and Watson with copyright impunity and pen his next adventure.

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