“Eliminate all other factors,” that most famous of detectives once said, “and the one that remains must be the truth.”
Sherlock Holmes first appeared over 125 years ago and, a federal judge recently ruled, he’s here to stay. In fact, he could even stay at your house and you could write a story about it. The rights to the great logician, his loyal chronicler Dr. John Watson, and the villainous Moriarity are now in the public domain, meaning that the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate may no longer demand a licensing fee should you want to write a book about Holmes solving the disappearance of your puppy. According to U.S. copyright law, the fifty stories and novels Doyle published before January 1, 1923—including their myriad characters—are now fair game.
It’s not as though Holmes had taken a permanent leap off Reichenbach Falls since Conan Doyle’s death in 1930. He’s appeared in too many films, television series, and novels to count, drawing new legions of fans with each outing. In particular, the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the famous duo zipping around modern London. Added bonus: turning relatively unknown—to U.S. audiences, at least—Cumberbatch into a bonafide sex symbol (just ask his devout followers who dub themselves “Cumber-babes”) and film star.
On this side of the Atlantic, Holmes, in the tattooed form of Jonny Lee Miller, lives in a shabby-chic New York brownstone with his sober-companion-turned-detecting-partner, Dr. Watson in Elementary and consults for the NYPD. This Watson just happens to be named Joan and is played by Lucy Liu.
Then there’s the scruffy and charming—but with a mean knockout punch—Holmes of the Guy Ritchie films, starring Robert Downey Jr. and his partner in crime-solving, and banter, Jude Law’s Watson.
The court decision stemmed from a civil complaint filed by one of the character’s foremost experts, author Leslie S. Klinger—the editor of, among other Holmes-related volumes, the three-part door-stopper (it’s 3,000 pages) The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes—alleging the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. wanted an additional licensing fee. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Klinger and Ms. King [Laurie R. King, another author and fountain of Holmes knowledge] had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Mr. Klinger said that the publisher of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., a business entity organized in Britain, suggesting that the estate would prevent the new book from being sold by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and “similar retailers” unless it received another fee.”
The verdict? Anything introduced by Conan Doyle prior to 1923 is now in the public domain. But after 1923? No such luck. Unless you go to the UK, where all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories are in the public domain.
So what’s in and what’s out? Here’s a handy list.
- “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1888)
Hello, Irene Adler. As Watson says, “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.”
- The Sign of Four (1890)
The Baker Street Irregulars, street urchins extraordinaire, are introduced.
- “The Final Problem” (1893)
Hero, meet villain: Dr. James Moriarity.
- “The Adventures of the Sussex Vampire” (1924)
Sorry, no Holmes and vampires (or poison darts).
- “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926)
No picking the brain of London’s best gossip-monger, Langdale Pike.
- “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” (1927)
Scratch using the lion-maiming incident in Abbas Parva as a clue to get the attention of Mr. Holmes.
What’s your favorite Holmes quote, story, or media portrayal? Let us know in the comments section.
Photo credits: Baker Street Station (The Guardian), Sherlock (BBC TV), Elementary (CBS), Sherlock Holmes film still (Warner Brothers)