Solving the mystery of Doyle estate’s copyright claim to Sherlock Holmes

January 3, 2014

sherlockSherlock Holmes is having a moment.

First, there was Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film “Sherlock Holmes.” Then, in 2012, came CBS’ “Elementary,” which moved Holmes to modern-day New York. Sometime in between those two, the BBC’s “Sherlock” gained traction with U.S. audiences and made its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, an unlikely matinee idol.

One thing all three of these adaptations have in common is that they aren’t exactly faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Ritchie re-imagined Holmes as a skull-cracking badass and “Elementary” cast Lucy Liu (A woman! Gasp!) as his sidekick, Dr. Watson.

Now, riffing on Doyle’s creation is nothing new (Fact: Holmes’ trademark deerstalker cap is never mentioned by name in Doyle’s stories. It only became part of Holmes’ image with Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of the character in the 1939 movie “The Hound of the Baskverilles.”) However, these new adaptations are notable for the extent of their artistic liberties.

Today’s artists are free to innovate, shall we say, on Holmes because the bulk of Doyle’s stories were published so long ago that their copyright has expired and they are in the public domain. That isn’t to say Doyle’s estate is happy about that, though.

Recently, his estate tried to argue that since 10 Holmes stories still remain under copyright, the elements they contain – Holmes, Watson and 221B Baker Street – should be protected, too. A judge disagreed, however, saying that Holmes and Watson emerged with Doyles’ first Holmes story, 1887’s “A Study In Scarlet,” which no longer enjoys copyright protection. Just because Holmes and Watson appeared in subsequent stories, including the 10 that are still protected, doesn’t mean they’re off limits.

The author’s favorite Sherlock Holmes story is “Silver Blaze,” in which it was very curious indeed that the dog did nothing.