The detective novel was invented in the 1840s, but it was perfected in 1887. That year saw the publication of A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first book to feature his signature character, Sherlock Holmes. Over four decades, Doyle’s stories of the preternaturally talented sleuth cemented Holmes as the world’s most famous detective.
Over more than 250 portrayals on the stage and screen, Holmes is typically portrayed as brilliant yet cold and aloof, aided by his constant companion, John Watson. Now, after more than 130 years and numerous complicated court cases, Holmes has definitively entered the public domain, meaning that anybody can use the character in a published work. And despite the Doyle estate’s protestations, that’s a good thing.
The first U.S. copyright law adopted in 1790 established that a work could be protected for up to 28 years. The current structure, in place since 1998, puts any works published before 1924 in the public domain, while anything published between 1924 and 1978 is copyrighted for 95 years. Most of Doyle’s works were published before 1924, but his final collection of Holmes stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, making 2022 its final year of copyright protection.
Incidentally, this means that most Holmes stories are already in the public domain and have been for decades. For years, the Doyle estate claimed that as long as any Holmes works were still covered by copyright protection, then that meant the characters were as well.
In 2014, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that while the characters had indeed fallen into the public domain, the specific details of the final 10 Case-book stories remained under copyright. For example, Holmes and Watson were up for grabs, but certain character traits introduced in the later stories, like Holmes’ love of dogs and Watson’s second marriage, were off limits.
In 2020, the Doyle estate sued Netflix over its movie Enola Holmes, which is about Sherlock’s teenage sister. Even though Holmes himself was free to use, and his sister was an original character not in the Doyle canon, the estate claimed the movie (and the novels on which it was based) used Holmes’ personality traits from the final 10 stories. After losing his son and brother during World War I, Doyle incorporated more humanity into his final Holmes stories. In its filing, the estate claimed, “Holmes became warmer. He became capable of friendship. He could express emotion. He began to respect women.” As examples of infringing content, the lawsuit cites “respond[ing] to [Enola] with warmth and kindness” and showing concern for “the well-being” of Watson, his only friend.
As of January 1, the last of the Holmes stories enter the public domain, leaving the characters unequivocally up for grabs and putting an end to a needlessly convoluted legal structure.
Before today, anybody could write a story about Sherlock Holmes, inventing new cases or hobbies or side characters, but if the detective was depicted as an empathetic dog lover, then that would run afoul of his copyright. It’s hard to imagine that such a granular distinction truly served the creation’s best interests: Authors were free to write works like Sherlock Holmes and the Alien Abduction more than a decade ago.
New creations and derivations are good for old intellectual properties. The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021. Immediately, new versions sprang up, like a graphic novel and The Gay Gatsby, an LGBTQ retelling. Even Enola Holmes, which the Doyle estate fought so fervently, was well-received, with Rotten Tomatoes calling it “a breath of fresh air” and viewers praising Henry Cavill’s portrayal of empathetic Sherlock.
Leave a Reply