Sherlock and the case of the out-of-copyright detective

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It’s the kind of puzzle to amuse Sherlock Holmes himself.

Now that copyright has expired on nearly all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the detective in the deerstalker, are writers free to use the character in new mysteries?

A judge in Chicago says yes, if they do not stray into territory covered in the 10 stories still protected by copyright. Not so fast, says the Doyle estate, which is considering an appeal. Descendants of the Scottish author argue he continued to develop the characters of Holmes and Dr Watson in the later works so they should remain off-limits until the remaining copyrights run out at the end of 2022.

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

Mr Klinger plans to finish his editing work on In The Company Of Sherlock Holmes, a book of short stories featuring characters and other elements from Conan Doyle’s work. It is due to come out in the autumn.

If he wins the appeal, it could lift the threat of legal action for scores of writers churning out pastiches and fan fiction without permission. Most of them fly under the radar. In Mr Klinger’s case, the estate demanded 5,000 dollars (£3,050), he 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?” said Doyle estate lawyer William Zieske.

The ruling could also weaken the value of the Sherlock franchise to the point that major publishers and film producers could also decide to move ahead with projects without licensing deals, said Paul Supnik, a Beverly Hills lawyer specialising in copyright and entertainment law who is not connected with the case.