Sherlock Holmes to Remain in Public Domain After Supreme Court Declines Case

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The Supreme Court declined to take a case brought by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle that challenged whether the character of Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain.

The high court’s non-action means author Leslie Klinger does not have to pay license fees to the estate as he publishes modern anthologies of works featuring the famous detective, as long as they don’t infringe on new elements of the character Doyle introduced in works published in the 1920s that still fall under copyright.

The estate demanded and received $5,000 from Random House when it published Klinger’s anthology of modern Holmes stories. But when Klinger sought to do a follow-up, and the estate sought a license fee from Pegasus Books, the publisher apparently considered it a latent threat to sue and refused to publish the anthology. Klinger then sued.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Illinois again ruled in favor of Klinger, concluding that they “could find no basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration.” Judge Richard Posner, in an opinion awarding Klinger almost $31,000 in attorneys fees, wrote that the “Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the ‘rational’ writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand.”

He added, “It’s time the estate, in its own self interest, changed its business model.”

The estate had argued that the depiction of Holmes and other characters in works still under copyright were more “rounded” than those in the public domain, meaning they could still claim protection for the character in new works. But the appellate court rejected that argument.

The estate has given its stamp of approval to “Sherlock” on PBS and “Elementary” on CBS, but it’s unclear what the status will be or if they are currently paying license fees. Spokesmen for the production company behind “Sherlock” and “Elementary” could not immediately be reached.