The Copyright is Afoot!

January 3rd, 2014 | Posted in General

A blog reader emailed me the other day to ask if I’d heard about this news story concerning the copyright regarding the Sherlock Holmes characters. I had, in fact. Being a Sherlockian myself (#1 in Minnesota, #9 in U.S. in Holmes Trivia on “QuizUp”… just sayin’), and someone who has a vested interest in things like copyrights, I found it to be a very interesting turn of events.

Some background: Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain in Britain for years, but not completely so in the United States. The holdup in the U.S. has been the ten stories that Doyle published after 1922. Thanks to the US Copyright Act of 1976, authors or their heirs could reapply for copyrights to works that had entered the public domain but were produced after January 1, 1923. Those re-established copyrights could then extend until 2023. In 1981, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last surviving child of Sir Arthur¬¨‚ĆConan Doyle,¬¨‚Ćapplied for such registration of the copyright to “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle’s last collection of stories first published in the U.S. in 1927. Ten of the twelve stories in this collection were created after 1923, and U.S, copyright law applies to them after her successful registration.

The Doyle estate has argued that, although the four Holmes novels and most of the 56 short stories Doyle wrote might be fully in the public domain in the U.S., the characters themselves were protected by copyright because there had been “significant and on-going development” of the characters in those last stories that were inseparable from the characters themselves, and therefore no one could create new works with those characters without violating their copyright.

The story linked above says that a U.S. judge has ruled that the characters of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John Watson and most related characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are in the public domain here in the U.S., and that creators like filmmakers, artists, writers and such are free to produce Holmes related works without having to pay a licensing fee to the Doyle estate. Illinois Judge Ruben Castillo rejected the Doyle Estate’s argument, saying that only the specific plot elements, dialogue and new elements from the later stories are under copyright protection, not the characters themselves.

This is a fairly big deal. It means that anybody can make a film, write a story, or do a comic book about Sherlock Holmes without paying a licensing fee to the Doyle Estate, so long as they avoid the specifics of the stories still under copyright. I have no idea what kind of money those licensing fees amounted to, but I am sure the Conan Doyle estate isn’t happy about it. The rest of the world? Yes! I’ve actually always wanted to do my own comic book versions of the “canon” stories. Maybe now I will in my spare time (snort).

The Doyle estate is already planning an appeal, of course. I’m not sure they’ll be able to get it overturned, though. One can certainly argue that the characters themselves were well established before the post Jan 1, 1923 stories, and to try and sell the idea that no one can create something new with the characters without using the very few new backstory elements in those later stories is ridiculous.

Personally I don’t mind the idea of copyrights on a character living beyond the creator of that character as long as the copyright holders continue to do something with that character. Disney, for example, hasn’t been sitting around and collecting licensing fees from “Steamboat Willie”. They have actively grown and used the Mickey Mouse character and brand for decades upon decades. As far as I know, no one in the Conan Doyle family has done anything except milk their ancestor’s original 60 stories for all they are worth. If they aren’t creating with it, it should be released to the world to do some creating… like my forthcoming Complete Holmes graphic novel series! The best part is, the copyrights for the later stories expire in 2023, and as I won’t be half done with the older stories by then, I don’t have to worry about any copyrights! 😛


  1. Frahm says:

    Well it’s good and bad news at the same time. From the negative sight, comercial trash like US series “Elementary” and Hollywood’s “Sherlock Holmes” – who looks more like a Victorian era Tony Stark – would multiply. From the good one, more talented people become able to continue Conan Doyle’s work, like Mark Gatiss from BBC does and maybe a certain Tom Richmond. Overall, it makes Sherlock even more powerful and alive than it already was.
    PS: I got your book for christmas. It was a great surprise because the people who gave me it didn’t know that you are coincidentally the very first artist whose work I followed, as a beginner and amateur caricaturist. It’s trully an awesome book and I feel all that basic theory in my modest caricatures today, like strong basement pillars. Be sure that, like Conan Doyle, your work now is forever alive in other people’s creativity. I hope I reach that level someday.
    Best regards for 2014, Tom. Cheers.

    • Tom says:

      You will always have poor adaptations or ones that some people will not like. I personally hate the “Elementary” series but love the BBC’s “Sherlock”, both modern day takes on the characters. I enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. films for what they were worth, which was nothing more than an hour or two of popcorn munching fun. You can’t take an adaptation of Holmes seriously when Holmes is a head shorter than Watson. Look at “Young Sherlock Holmes” or “Without a Clue”, both travesties in the eyes of Sherlockians but still created under the thumb of the ACD estate. I doubt it will get worse than that.

      Glad you like the book! Happy caricaturing!

  2. jailerjoe says:

    Indubitably! Spare time…LOL!

  3. texasraider says:

    I hadn’t heard about that lawsuit, but I’d like to believe that the Doyle Estate and its heirs‚Äö√Ñ√¥ motivation to protect Holmes, Watson, et al, was primarily to ensure that future usage aligned with the spirit of Doyle’s vision and decency. But sadly, as you said, there is too much history of garbage-ing down Sherlockian characters to believe that the estate is after anything but a check.

    If the decision stands and free use reigns, it’ll be interesting to see if a film maker/director who is a true fan of SAD’s uses this freedom to create new movies.

    Although no one, and I mean NO ONE will EVER come close to Jeremy Brett’s incredible work in bringing Holmes to life, I’d still like to see a new movie done with a deep commitment to staying right on target with the original stories.

    An independent UK filmmaker could make a nice franchise of numerous films out of the original stories for far, far, far less than what that Robert Downey Jr silliness cost…

  4. Isaiah Shipp says:

    Maybe you won’t create a complete graphic novel of the canon, however I would love to see you do a piece like the “Doctor is in” or “Secret Agent Man” of the actors who have played Holmes. Not all of them of course, but I can easily picture how you would draw actors like Peter Cushing, Robert Downey
    Jr (even though he isn’t the best portrayal), Benedict Cumberbatch and (of course) Jeremy Brett.

  5. Sophie is obsessed with Cumberbatch/Freeman’s Sherlock series- I’ve subsequently been sucked in too. I’m enjoying it. I loved the Guy Ritchie films – would be interested to hear what you thought about them?

    Next time you’re Down Under, I’m taking you to my friend’s pub. He’s obsessed… I think you’d get along:


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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