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The Last Sherlock Holmes Story Finally Hits Public Domain

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As we hit 2023, the copyright protection expires on the very last original Sherlock Holmes stories still covered by copyright


As the ball drops in Times Square, and it officially becomes 2023 in the United States, the final Sherlock Holmes stories written by his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, are now all officially outside of copyright protection in the U.S, meaning that those stories can be republished, remixed or remade without permission of the Conan Doye Estate, Ltd. (the owners of the copyright rights).


Arthur Conan Doyle debuted the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in the 1887 novel, A Study in Scarlet. After a second novel, The Sign of the Four, in 1890, the character’s popularity exploded when Doyle began doing short stories featuring Holmes and Watson starting in the British magazine The Strand in 1893. The character became so popular that Doyle felt that he was essentially “trapped” by the character, as audiences wouldn’t accept the more serious fiction that he wanted to write so long as he was doing Holmes stories. So in 1893, he killed off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem.”

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However, Doyle then brought the character back in 1903, doing thirteen more short stories over the next two years. He then returned to the character again in 1908, doing seven more stories over the next nine years (by this point, Holmes was already beginning to appear in early motion pictures). Then, in 1921, following the death of his son in World War I in 1918, Doyle returned to Holmes, with a much different take on the detective, with the hero mellowed and Watson married. Doyle did twelve more stories, finishing with “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” in 1927.

the-casebook-of-sherlock-holmes

Those 1927 stories were the only Holmes stories by Doyle that were still copyright protected in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Holmes had hit the public domain in 1980 (and then after a law change, the protection was extended to 2000). In the United States, the protection on the pre-1923 stories were all gone by 1998, with only the stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes still protected, and those stories were “freed” one by one until only the two 1927 stories remained.

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WHAT DID IT MATTER THAT SOME SHERLOCK HOLMES STORIES WERE STILL COPYRIGHTED?

The issue with that protection is that the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd, the owners of the copyright, claimed that since some of the stories were still under copyright, then that meant that the characters of Holmes and Watson were still under copyright protection. In 2013, Leslie S. Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, filed for a declaratory judgment stating that the characters were public domain. He won that case.

In 2020, though, the Conan Doyle Estate. Ltd. again tried to argue that the Sherlock Holmes of the Netflix film, Enola Holmes, was based on specifically the later Holmes stories (where Holmes had mellowed), and thus it was still a copyright violation. That case was also dismissed, but now all copyright protection in the United States is over, so the issue no longer matters. Canada, though, is in the middle of a copyright protection freeze, so the later stories are still under copyright protection there.

Source: The Verge

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