The Washington Post

Sherlock Holmes and the vanishing copyright

(Courtesy of Pegasus) (Courtesy of Pegasus)

Sherlock Holmes may finally be free.

Thursday, United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan dismissed a plea from the Conan Doyle Estate to block publication of a new collection of stories based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective.

For decades, the Doyle heirs have jealously guarded all “literary, merchandising, and advertising rights” for Doyle’s works. Anyone wanting to use Sherlock or his friend Dr. Watson has typically paid the estate a license fee.

But Leslie S. Klinger, a California lawyer and the editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” decided not to play along anymore. In June, he successfully argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that Doyle’s characters are in the public domain. Therefore, he did not need to get the estate’s permission — or pay a fee — to publish his upcoming collection, “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon” (Pegasus).

The Doyle Estate appealed to the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the appeals court decision until the full case could be heard. Kagan’s rejection of that request on Thursday means that Klinger can move forward with “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” which is scheduled for release in early November. The estate could bring a copyright claim against Klinger at that time.

After the decision, Klinger wrote via e-mail, “We’re very pleased that Justice Kagan denied the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. petition for an ’emergency’ stay of the 7th Circuit’s order. We hope that the Estate may finally let this matter come to rest, so that creators can get on with what they do best and the Estate can focus on licensing its remaining copyrighted works.”

The estate claims on its Web site that the Circuit Court’s ruling “reduces the incentive for authors to create great literature by cutting short the value of copyrights.”

Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887.

Washington Post book reviewer Michael Dirda, who won an Edgar Award for “On Conan Doyle,” regrets that this protracted copyright battle has distracted fans from more enjoyable questions, such as where John H. Watson was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand or what that “H” in his name stands for.

“However one feels about the case and what appears to be its denouement,” he writes via e-mail, “it will be good that serious readers of the canon — the 56 stories and four novels — can now turn once more to debating whether Holmes attended Oxford, Cambridge or — as, Christopher Morley, principal founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, once proposed — Johns Hopkins.”

The only positive result to stem from these legal battles may be increased attention for Doyle’s work. “It’s fair to say,” Dirda writes, “that the news stories and media hoopla surrounding the copyright issue, coupled with the stylish Robert Downey films and two fine television series (“Sherlock” and “Elementary”), have renewed the world’s fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric, yet distinctly romantic sleuth of Baker Street. Sherlock Homes is currently hot — in every sense, and especially with young people. He remains the great and inspiring thinking machine he has always been, whether the year is 1895 or 2014.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Border collies: A 'mouse trap' for geese on the National Mall
Play Videos
Bao: The signature dish of San Francisco
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
What you need to know about Planned Parenthood
Play Videos
How to save and spend money at college
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Neely Tucker · July 18, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.