It’s been over 100 years since the original Sherlockians first became avid fans of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and now most of those stories are officially in the American public domain.
The news is all thanks to a ruling made Monday by Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals declaring most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works as being no longer subject to copyright laws. The decision also upholds a ruling made in December saying the American copyright had expired. You can read Posner’s full explanation of the decision here.
The ruling applies to Conan Doyle’s 46 stories and four novels published before January 1, 1923, which leaves his 10 final stories out of the public domain until their respective copyrights expire between 2018 and 2022, depending on their publication dates.
Posner’s ruling brings to an end the lawsuit between Conan Doyle’s estate and Leslie Klinger, who was co-editing a second anthology of stories based on the Sherlock Holmes canon. Klinger’s publisher, Random House, paid the estate a copyright licensing fee to publish the first anthology but Klinger instead decided to sue the estate the second time around, claiming that the information extracted from existing Sherlock Holmes stories comes from the ones no longer under copyright.
The estate, however, argued that since the last 10 stories helped flesh out and define Holmes as a “rounded” character as opposed to a flat one, the copyright on everything should be extended until the final story’s copyright runs out in eight years.
Posner didn’t buy the argument that Holmes and Watson weren’t fully rounded characters until Conan Doyle’s very last story and said the estate defined flat characters “oddly,” adding that “what this has to do with copyright law eludes us” since Klinger’s work does not apply to the 10 stories still currently protected.
He also said the estate’s argument is being used as a way to get 135 years of “nearly perpetual” copyright protection for Conan Doyle’s stories, calling the appeal one that borders on “quixotic.”
“It appears that the Doyle estate is concerned not with specific alterations in the depiction of Holmes or Watson in Holmes-Watson stories written by authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle, but with any such story that is published without payment to the estate of a licensing fee,” Posner writes.
Klinger, meanwhile, was reportedly “very, very pleased” with the decision and hopes to have his anthology published later this year.