Sherlock Holmes: an adventure in the public domain

Jul 18, 2014

US Supreme Court refuses to hear 'emergency petition' from Conan Doyle estate after Sherlock Holmes loses copyright protection

The Victorian Web/ Sidney Paget

The US Supreme Court has dismissed a request made by the heirs of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to halt the publication of a new Sherlock Holmes book.

Supreme Court judge Elena Kagan refused to hear the Conan Doyle family's "emergency petition" regarding two authors' refusal to pay a licensing fee for depicting the author's characters in their forthcoming short story collection, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, reports the Daily Telegraph.

Justice Kagan did not explain why she had dismissed the plea.

Leslie Klinger and Laurie R. King had previously paid a $5,000 (£2,900) licensing fee for their first anthology, A Study in Sherlock, in 2011, but declined to do so for the second collection, which prompted lawsuits from both sides.

A Chicago appeals court "said that the character of Sherlock, along with 46 stories and four novels in which he has appeared, was in the public domain", reports the BBC. That ruling prompted the family's unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court.

Although most of the Holmes stories have now passed out of copyright protection, the Conan Doyle estate holds the rights to the last ten Holmes stories until 2022. The family argues that the characters themselves remain under that protection, according to the Telegraph.

"Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were not static but are dynamic literary characters who changed and developed throughout the Sherlock Holmes canon," the estate said. "Many aspects of these characters' natures are not revealed until the final 10 stories, which are still under copyright protection."

The heirs told AFP they would "follow up 'in the coming months' and looked forward to presenting their arguments in a petition to review the lower court's decision".

Klinger said in a blog post that "the next arena is the District Court, where we have filed a petition asking the Court to award legal fees and costs in the matter".

Sign up for our daily newsletter