Sherlock Holmes at centre of case of copyright

Benedict Cumberbatch as the youthful Sherlock Holmes. Picture: PA
Benedict Cumberbatch as the youthful Sherlock Holmes. Picture: PA
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A WRITER who wants to depict the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in a series of new mystery stories is locked in a legal battle with the estate of Scots author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Federal judge Ruben Castillo in Chicago ruled against the estate last week, saying writers should be free to depict Holmes without seeking permission or paying licence fees, providing they do not venture into territory covered in ten stories still protected by copyright.

Copyright protection has expired on the majority of the author’s work.

However, descendants of the Edinburgh-born physician and creator of the legendary detective argue that Conan Doyle continued to develop the characters of Holmes and Dr Watson in the later works and claim that the figures should remain off-limits until the remaining copyrights run out at the end of 2022.

The ten protected stories have new biographical footnotes on the characters, including a mention that Watson had a second wife and played rugby in his youth.

Author Leslie Klinger, who brought the case against the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd to settle the case, said: “It’s a bogus argument. It means you can reprint Conan Doyle’s own stories freely but you can’t make up a new story? It doesn’t make logical sense.”

Mr Klinger, who is also a lawyer, argued that everything readers wanted to know about Holmes and Watson was in the novels and stories published before 1923 that are already in the public domain in the United States.

That includes their family backgrounds, education and a slew of character traits, including Holmes’ Bohemian nature and cocaine use, erratic eating habits, his Baker Street lodgings, his methods of reasoning, his clever use of disguise, his skill in chemistry and even his weapon of choice, a loaded hunting crop.

Mr Klinger, who is based in Malibu, California, said the Doyle estate had demanded $5,000 (£3,050) from him.

Following the ruling, Mr Klinger plans to finish work on In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a book of original short stories featuring characters and other elements from Conan Doyle’s work. He is co-editing the book with plans to publish this autumn.

If appeal court judges uphold the decision, the ruling could lift the threat of legal action for writers churning out pastiches and fan fiction without permission.

William Zieske, Doyle estate lawyer, said: “Whatever decision they make will essentially det­ermine the fate of many characters, not just Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, but very intricate characters such as James Bond. What happens as copyrights expire on Ian Fleming’s original stories?”

The Doyle estate also said there are other significant elements in those later stories, such as Holmes’ “mellowing” personality and the shift in Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship from flatmates and collaborators to closest friends.

At the heart of the dispute is whether a character can be copyright protected over an entire series of works. The Doyle estate argues that a basic element of copyright law allows for that if the character is highly delineated, as opposed to a two-dimensional cartoon-like character who does not change much over time.

In ruling against the estate, Judge Castillo called the claim a “novel legal argument” that was “counter to the goals of the Copyright Act”.

The lawsuit was filed in Chic­ago because a literary agent for the Doyle estate is based in Illinois.