Sherlock Holmes licencing issue reaches breaking point

There has been a dramatic development involving the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate and the licencing of the characters Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Holmesian scholar Leslie S. Klinger has filed a civil action in the United States District Court arguing that the characters are no longer protected by copyright laws. Therefore, anyone should be able to use them in their writing, films etc without having to pay a fee to the Doyle estate who own the remaining copyright. Full information is available on the http://free-sherlock.com/ website.

Klinger and a fellow author were co-editing a book containing stories inspired by the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle works.

He claims that the Conan Doyle estate contacted the publisher and implied, that unless they paid a fee, the estate would put pressure on all major distributors not to sell the book. The publisher has had to suspend publication until the issue is resolved and this prompted Klinger to take legal action, which he explains as follows:

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws. However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.

“This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators,” Klinger adds. “It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

I share Klinger’s views completely. He is a lawyer and fully respects that the Estate owns copyright to ten of the original stories in the US which appeared in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. His issue is that those characters are already known through the other stories which are no longer protected by copyright. So anyone should be able to use them. Not only does this make perfect legal and common sense, but it is also good for the legacy of Holmes and ultimately Doyle himself. The more pastiches, films, TV dramas, essays, blogs in the world about Holmes, the more likely we are to keep the character alive and thriving. I’m sure Doyle would want this – to know that he is inspiring generations through the characters he created. Though he would probably think we are all completely mad.

Surely the Doyle family would be better focusing their efforts on the Save Undershaw campaign – something which I’m sure Doyle would be in support of. Protecting the former home which Doyle designed and lived in seems a more worthy cause than trying to protect fictional characters that are established in the public domain. I certainly don’t know this as a fact, but as far as I’m aware, the Doyle family has played no part in the Save Undershaw campaign so far. If I’m wrong, do please use the comments section below and correct me.

So I say a big “well done!” to Klinger and will follow the case with interest.

About barefootonbakerstreet

Author and senior recruitment manager from Shropshire
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5 Responses to Sherlock Holmes licencing issue reaches breaking point

  1. Peter Kavanagh says:

    While I tend to sympathize with both you and Leslie Klinger, I do think it is probably sufficient to argue the legalities of the case and not to impute possible beliefs or motivations to Conan Doyle. We don’t know what he would think, and when it comes to copyright law it doesn’t matter.

    • You are right of course, we can only guess at Doyle’s attitude towards pastiche writers. But this famous Doyle quote, sent in a telegram to actor William Gillette, strongly suggests that he was happy for others to use his famous characters how ever they wanted –

      ‘You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.’

      We can’t possibly know how he would feel about the fight to save Undershaw but I am surprised that the Doyle Estate haven’t offered support – even though it would not benefit them financially. Doyle himself did many things which were not motivated by money – fighting to support victims of injustice and his support for spiritualism. It seems a shame that this spirit doesn’t appear to be shared by those guarding his legacy. (However, I must point out that I don’t know for sure that the Doyle family haven’t supported Undershaw. I just haven’t heard mention of it during my own research of the campaign). Thanks for your comments.

  2. Don Kraar says:

    Saving Undershaw is very unlikely to generate revenues for the Doyle Estate. Licensing Sherlock Holmes does produce revenues for the Estate. Money talks. It is as simple as that.

    • You are right and it does seem very sad if the family haven’t got involved in Save Undershaw. Doyle himself fought two campaigns where he felt there was injustice – the cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater – even though there was nothing in it for him financially. He was motivated by a sense of justice and fought for things he believed in – from the Boer war to spiritualism. It is a shame if those in charge of his legacy don’t share the same philosophy. However, I must add that I don’t know for a fact that they haven’t supported Undershaw. I just haven’t come across any involvement during my own research.

  3. Reblogged this on Frankie Roberto and commented:
    An open and shut case, surely?

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