In a December 23 ruling, Illinois federal judge Ruben Castillo declared that the character of Sherlock Holmes, as well as other characters and elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic mystery series published before 1923 are in the public domain. In a declarative judgment, Castillo held that for all but a few remaining stories, the “public may use the pre-1923 story elements without seeking a license.”
The federal suit was brought in early 2013 by author and scholar Leslie Klinger. Klinger, who is also an attorney, told PW that the suit became necessary after the Doyle estate attempted to extract a license fee for a new book he was co-editing, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes (Pegasus Books) with author Laurie R. King, the bestselling author of the "Mary Russell" series of mysteries that also feature Sherlock Holmes.
“The Conan Doyle Estate contacted our publisher and implied that if the Estate wasn't paid a license fee, they'd convince the major distributors not to sell the book,” Klinger told PW in February, 2013. “Our publisher was, understandably, concerned, and told us that the book couldn't come out unless this was resolved.”
Klinger said that beyond resolving his own situation, he filed the suit to put an end to such threats for others as well, and in a statement he said he hoped the decision would serve as a warning to others who are committing “copyfraud.”
"Authors, stand up for your work—don’t be bullied by those whose economic position makes it possible for them to win when they shouldn’t," Klinger told PW. "Let me be clear: I’m not one who says that 'information wants to be free.' Artists should be entitled to fair and reasonable profits from their work. Copyrights are important protections for artists. But when they are over, they’re over."
The case is somewhat unusual, in that the Doyle estate had not sued for infringement—it had merely sought to use its standing as Doyle’s representative to extract license fees. But the implicit threat of copyright litigation, Klinger claimed, amounted to unfair intimidation.
“In practice, major creators, such as Warner Bros. and CBS, have found it more cost-effective to pay a license fee rather than to challenge the Estate’s position,” Klinger told PW. “Fighting means legal fees and delays, antithetical to big businesses.”
The decision excludes roughly 10 of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, which remain under U.S. copyright protection, and which Klinger had excluded from his suit. But roughly 50 other stories featuring the famous characters are now officially in the American public domain.
The decision was not a total legal victory for Klinger, however. While the court granted Klinger’s request to declare the characters and elements into the public domain, it denied his request to issue what Castillo interpreted as a request for permanent injunction against the estate, finding that was “broader than the relief Klinger is entitled to.”