Sherlock Holmes Is Now in the U.S. Public Domain

Jonny Lee Miller stars as Sherlock Holmes, with Lucy Liu as Watson in "Elementary."

Americans can continue revising Sherlock as they wish: a judge ruled that Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are in the United States public domain.

Americans can continue revising Sherlock as they wish: a judge ruled that Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, and other elements of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are in the United States public domain.

Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times reported that a federal judge ruled that elements in the 50 Conan Doyle works published before the the start of 1923 are not covered by copyright, therefore anyone who divines any new Holmes-related material will not have to pay a licensing fee. (Information in Conan Doyle's 10 stories published after that date remain under copyright.) The ruling was in response to a suit from Leslie S. Klinger, a lawyer and editor of Holmes related books. Schuessler reported back in March that the suit ripped apart the Holmes community, pitting Klinger against Jon Lellenberg, who is the American agent for Conan Doyle.

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This of course comes at a good time for Sherlock-based entertainments. The BBC's Sherlock is returning to American TVs next month, and CBS's Elementary is in the middle of its second season. A third Guy Ritchie-directed, Robert Downey Jr.- and Jude Law-starring movie is reportedly in the works.

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Schuessler explained in her earlier article that Lellenberg, acting for the estate, "has helped bestow its blessing on lucrative projects like the Warner Brothers film franchise and updated TV versions like the BBC’s 'Sherlock' and CBS’s 'Elementary,' which have brought an infusion of money along with a stream of new fans whose tastes run more to Benedict Cumberbatch-themed Tumblrs than deerstalkers." A lawyer for the estate told Schuessler after the ruling that it did not "imperil any existing licensing agreements."

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Of course the ruling doesn't quite untangle all questions surrounding the rights to Sherlock, which are far from elementary. A report by Nick Clark The Independent in August explained that the copyright rules for Holmes are different in the U.K. Clark wrote: "An agent who works with the estate in Britain said the works were now out of copyright but the rights to the characters were under license to someone she would not name." According to  Dave Itzkoff's piece in the New York Times from 2010 Holmes and Conan Doyle's works entered the public domain in Britain in 1980.

And don't start working on getting your Cumberbatch as Sherlock fan fiction ready to be published. When CBS was readying their version of an updated Sherlock, a producer of the BBC show vowed to "protect the interest and wellbeing of our offspring."

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