Ready Your Fanfic, ‘Cause Sherlock Holmes Is Now In the Public Domain
by Rebecca Pahle | 4:00 pm, December 29th, 2013
A judge has ruled that the vast majority of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain in the US, which means (among other things) that you can make money off your Johnlock fic without Conan Doyle’s heirs swooping down on you with blazing swords, ready to exact financial vengeance. It’s go time.
Editors Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King were all ready to release a short story anthology called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes when Conan Doyle’s estate contacted the publisher and suggested that they’d keep the book from being published in major bookstores unless they received a $5,000 licensing fee. But Klinger and King, who’d already paid the licensing fee for a previous anthology, weren’t up for that, and they took the issue to court.
See, under US copyright law everything published before 1923—which includes all but ten of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories—is in the public domain. The author’s estate argued that, in effect, the characters weren’t “finished” until the very last story was published. Key to that argument was the fact that those stories don’t just cover the end of Sherlock and Watson’s lives, and as such elements introduced in those post-1923 stories are essential to the characters as a whole. Watson, no matter who writes him, always used to play rugby—a fact established in the 1924 story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”—and that always impacts his character whether or not it’s specifically mentioned.
If you think that sounds like bunk, Chief Judge Rubén Castillo agrees with you. Under his decision it is now completely kosher for anyone (in the US, that is) to write their own Sherlock Holmes stories as long as they steer clear of elements from the post-1923 stories, which—barring a change in copyright law—don’t enter the public domain until 2023. So you can’t write about Watson’s talent for rugby or his second wife (unless you’re in the UK, where all the Holmes stories are in the public domain). But if you want to publish a coffee shop AU where Sherlock is the Worst Barista Ever, and his long-suffering manager Lestrade would fire him if his brother didn’t happen to be the city health inspector… go wild.