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The final case of Sherlock Holmes

On 3 November this year, one of the longest-running adventures of famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was finally put to rest.

Holmes is surely among the most famous and popular characters in the literary canon, a fact that was apparent to writers other than creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle even while he was still alive.

French author Maurice Leblanc had his rogue Arsene Lupin match wits with the great detective back in 1906, but was forced to change his hero’s adversary to the transparent “Herlock Sholmes” after Conan-Doyle’s legal challenge. After Doyle’s death, his estate has retained a keen interest in the intellectual property rights attached to Sherlock, Watson, Baker Street and all the paraphernalia of the Holmes stories.

Under UK law, copyright lasts 70 years from the death of the author for literary, music and similar works. Under US law, given that Holmes final battle was fought in the States, copyright will also last 95 years from the date of publication, if this gives a longer date.

The very last Conan-Doyle Holmes story was published in 1927, remaining well within copyright. The detective’s earliest case was published in 1887, and is therefore out of copyright. However, with Holmes, Watson and various other elements continuing throughout the course of the stories, the estate defended its rights over the entire Holmes canon.

Over the years since Conan-Doyle’s death there have been countless iterations of the detective – actors such as Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Robert Stephens – and more recently Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr – have played him, and he has featured in countless books and games and stage plays, all of which required permission from the estate.

Fast forward, though, to when Leslie Klinger sets foot on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. Klinger, a noted Holmes authority, brought a claim against the estate that was heard in the US courts in December 2013. Klinger’s argument was that the earlier Holmes fiction – novels and stories predating 1923, meaning the vast bulk of Holmes’ adventures – should be considered in the public domain, and be treated entirely separately to the final ten Conan-Doyle stories published from 1923-27.

The Conan-Doyle estate’s counterargument was that, as the later stories included major character developments (such as Holmes’ retirement and Watson’s second wife), the characters themselves should remain under copyright entire.

The case was hard-fought on both sides, but the initial decision in December of last year went to Klinger, with the court effectively severing the last ten stories from the rest. Character elements introduced in those final tales remain in the control of the estate, but Holmes and Watson are now free to provide consulting detective services to any author, dramatist or film-maker who might wish to engage them.

This decision was finally reconfirmed on 3 November after the estate’s attempts at appeal were finally quashed.

Which, on a personal note, comes as some relief as a certain collection of Holmes pastiches, “Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets” was published on the 9 October, and just happens to contain a story by your humble author.

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