The pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories are no longer covered by U.S. copyright law a federal judge has ruled. Anyone may use elements from them without seeking a license from the Conan Doyle estate.
Or, as The Guardian put it —
Prospective authors of Sherlock Holmes fan fiction take heed: under a new court ruling, you may write that Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine-addicted martial arts aficionado cohabiting occasionally at 221B Baker Street, with a friend called Dr Watson.
You may not, however, freely describe Dr Watson’s own athletic background, the juicy fact of his second marriage or the circumstances of Holmes’s retirement.
The estate had argued Conan Doyle continually developed the character therefore, because his final Holmes story was published in 1927, copyright protection should extend until the last story enters the public domain in 2022. The judge treated this view with polite disdain, calling it a “novel legal argument.” However, he agreed that details first created in stories remaining under copyright could not be freely used — Watson’s second wife, for example.
The ruling came in response to a civil complaint, reported here in March, filed by Leslie Klinger, editor with Laurie R. King of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of new Holmes stories. They had paid $5,000 licensing fee for an earlier collection of latter-day Holmes stories but had balked when the estate threatened to keep their new book from being sold unless they paid another fee.
Judge Ruben Castillo cited a 1989 decision in which CBS tried to stop a Broadway adaptation featuring Amos ‘n’ Andy, characters in a once-popular radio comedy that debuted in 1928 and in a 1950s TV series. The characters were ruled to be in the public domain, but some “increments of expression” that further “delineated the characters and story” remained under copyright.
The ruling applies to the United States – in Britain, the entire Sherlock Holmes canon has been in the public domain since the end of 2000.