Great News: Now Anyone Can Write and Publish a Sherlock Holmes Story

Reinterpreting a literary classic doesn't reduce its characters to "cardboard cutouts," as Doyle's estate has insisted—it informs, critiques, and expands upon the original work and its themes.
BBC; Wikimedia; CBS

At last, the great detective Sherlock Holmes has broken free of the clutches of his captors.

Last month, a Chicago judge ruled that Holmes, a fictional character created in the late 19th century by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is in fact out of copyright—meaning that the exclusive copyrights once held by the publishers of the original Sherlock Holmes stories no longer apply. Unless the decision is overturned on appeal, new Holmes adaptations should be just about as legally unregulated as adaptations of Shakespeare or folk tales. Given the success of adaptations like Elementary and BBC’s Sherlock, that means we're likely to see a whole lot more Holmes content in the not-too-distant future. And since a strong public domain benefits art, that's a boon both for Holmes-lovers and for everyone else.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes was out of copyright already. The original novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887—more than 125 years ago. Even in the U.S., where copyright has been extended and extended and extended again, protection usually applies only 95 years from the date of publication, meaning Holmes and Watson should be well out of it.

In fact, that was the argument in court of Leslie Klinger, a Holmes scholar and enthusiast who intends to publish a book of original Holmes stories by various authors titled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes in the fall. However, the Doyle Estate argued that copyright protection should extend from the last collection of stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927—which would mean that the character could not be used without permission until 2022. According to them, Holmes continued to evolve, becoming more mellow and closer friends with Watson. To write stories just using the earliest Holmes material is a crime against Holmes and art in general, according to Doyle estate attorney William Zieske. Or, as he put it, "to reduce true literary characters to a cardboard cutout, parts of which can be carved off, I think does literature a great disservice."

Zieske's objection is framed in terms of this particular court case; he's arguing that you can't use Doyle's early stories unless you use all of Doyle's stories. But the argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, actually seems to dismiss the value of any and all adaptations of a work. If it "does literature a great disservice" to carve off bits of it, then how does that not apply to, say, the film version of 12 Years a Slave, which is (inevitably) quite selective in its use of its (public domain) source material? If any literary dicing is bad, then it seems like copyright should be extended as much as possible in order to prevent as many adaptations as possible, carefully preserving the original literary vision from depredations.

There's certainly an appeal to this line of thinking. Bad adaptations can be ugly and depressing. I certainly wish that Brian Azzarello had never gotten his clammy oven mitts on Wonder Woman, and that DC Comics hadn't decided to make a mess of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen. If you love a work of art, it's painful to see it get mishandled and proverbially spit on for profit.

But if you love a work of art, it may also inspire you. Such inspiration can take lots of different forms. If you're Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, you might retool Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin stories to make up your own detective and name him Sherlock Holmes—a process of carving off and rejiggering which you'd think even the Doyle estate would approve of.  

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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