November 5, 2014

Sherlock Holmes will stay in the public domain


Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and fair game for fan fiction & adaptations. ©Malchev / via Shutterstock

Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and fair game for fan fiction & adaptations.
©Malchev / via Shutterstock

In a story that feels a bit like déjà vu, the Supreme Court has reinforced the decision to keep Sherlock Holmes in the public domain. Michael Schaub writes for the Los Angeles Times blog Jacket Copy that the court declined to hear a case from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, effectively eliminating any options the estate has to demand licensing fees from people who want to write stories featuring the famous detective.

When authors Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger tried to publish an anthology of Holmes stories last year, titled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, the Doyle estate claimed it was entitled to a licensing fee for the works about Holmes written by contemporary writers. They had managed to get similar fees from other writers, including Klinger himself for a previous book, on the basis that there are still ten stories by Doyle that have not passed into the public domain. Klinger sued, though, and in June, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner held that the majority of Doyle’s stories (and the character Sherlock Holmes himself) are not protected by copyright.

The Doyle estate appealed that decision and brought it to the Supreme Court, which on Monday stated that it would not be hearing the case, upholding Posner’s ruling and leaving the estate without any legal recourse to pursue licensing fees from writers who portray Holmes in their work. As Schaub notes, this leaves the door wide open for Holmes enthusiasts to create their own fan fiction as they while away the months before the BBC’s TV adaptation Sherlock returns.

The Supreme Court non-ruling doesn’t change anything for the ten individual stories that are still under copyright protection (until 2022). In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, published by Pegasus, is now available for sale.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.