Ruling Protects Much of Sherlock Holmes Character


Conan Doyle Estate Considering Appeal

By Benjamin Allison
Counsel for the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.

Santa Fe, N.M. -- A recent ruling from a Chicago trial court held that part of the literary characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are in the public domain, but the decision continues to protect all characteristics of the two developed in post-1922 stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. had argued that because the Holmes and Watson characters were not completed by Sir Arthur until a series of stories whose copyrights continue through 2022, the characters remain protected through 2022. The ruling did not provide a direct answer to this argument and appeared not to acknowledge the basic copyright rule that highly delineated characters are entitled to their own copyright. The Estate hopes to appeal the decision so that Sherlock Holmes and many other significant characters created over a series of novels or stories receive protection for the full copyright term intended by Congress.

In the meantime, even under the current ruling from the Chicago trial court, all development of the Holmes and Watson characters by Sir Arthur in ten post-1922 stories remain fully protected by copyright. These ten stories—set at a variety of earlier points in the two men's fictional lives—contain significant elements of both characters, including Sherlock Holmes's mellowing personality, the change in Holmes’s and Watson's relationship from flatmates and collaborators to closest friends, and a host of other developments, skills, and elements of background. While plaintiff Leslie Klinger sought a ruling that some of these character traits were free for all to use, the Court rejected Mr. Klinger's effort in this regard and held that all such characteristics of Holmes and Watson are protected.

The Court further modified its ruling as follows: "The Court has already clarified that Mr. Klinger does not seek a judicial determination of the copyright status of the Sherlock Holmes character, however, and thus the Court does not address this issue." (emphasis added).

Nearly a third of the stories in Mr. Klinger's first co-edited story collection, A Study in Sherlock, use protected post-1922 story elements. That book's publisher, Random House, appropriately entered into a modest licensing arrangement with the Estate despite Mr. Klinger’s position against such a license. Mr. Klinger did not provide his second story collection to the Estate, but one of the writers for that new collection told the Estate he wished to use a protected character, Langdale Pike, from the post-1922 stories. The Chicago Court reiterated that the character is fully protected by copyright law.

The Conan Doyle Estate’s trademark rights in the SHERLOCK HOLMES name and image were not at issue in Mr. Klinger’s lawsuit and remain unaffected. A new SHERLOCK HOLMES novel licensed by the Estate and written by Anthony Horowitz is due out in 2014, and the International Exhibition of SHERLOCK HOLMES will move in February from its premiere venue in Portland, Oregon, to the next stop on its United States tour, the Center for Science & Industry in Columbus, Ohio.

Benjamin Allison, an attorney with Sutin, Thayer & Browne, serves as lead counsel for the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.

Sutin, Thayer & Browne is New Mexico’s largest women-owned law firm, providing exceptional legal services in Albuquerque and Santa Fe since 1946.