The detective story was invented in 1840, but was perfected in 1887. That year saw the publication of A study in scarlet, the first book by Arthur Conan Doyle to feature his signature character, Sherlock Holmes. Over the course of four decades, Doyle’s stories of the supernaturally gifted sleuth cemented Holmes as the world’s most famous detective.
In over 250 performances on stage and screen, Holmes is typically portrayed as brilliant but cold and aloof, aided by his constant companion, John Watson. Now, after more than 130 years and numerous complicated court cases, Holmes has finally entered the public domain, meaning anyone can use the character in a published work. And despite the protests of the Doyle estate, that’s a good thing.
The first US copyright law adopted in 1790 stated that a work could be protected for up to 28 years. The current structure, in effect since 1998, places any work published before 1924 into the public domain, while any work published between 1924 and 1978 is protected by copyright for 95 years. Most of Doyle’s works were published before 1924, but his final collection of Holmes stories, The Book of Sherlock Holmes Cases it was published in 1927, making 2022 its last year of copyright protection.
Incidentally, this means that most of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain and have been for decades. For years, the Doyle estate has claimed that as long as any Holmes’ works were still covered by copyright protection, so that meant the characters were, too.
In 2014, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while the characters had indeed become public knowledge, the specific details of the last 10 Case-book the stories remained under copyright. For example, Holmes and Watson were up for grabs, but some character traits introduced in later stories, such as Holmes’ love of dogs and Watson’s second marriage, were off-limits.
In 2020, the Doyle estate sued Netflix over his film Enola Holmes, which is about Sherlock’s teenage sister. Even though Holmes himself was free to use, and his sister was an original character not in Doyle’s canon, the estate claimed that the film (and the novels it was based on) used Holmes’ personality traits from the last 10 stories . After losing his son and brother in World War I, Doyle incorporated more humanity into his latest Holmes stories. In its filing, the estate stated, “Holmes grew hotter. He became capable of friendship. He could express emotions. He he started respecting women.” As examples of infringing content, the lawsuit cites “respond[ing] to [Enola] with heat and kindness” and showing concern for “the welfare” of Watson, his only friend.
As of January 1, the latest of the Holmes stories enters the public domain, leaving the characters unequivocally up for grabs and ending an unnecessarily convoluted legal structure.
Before today, anyone could write a Sherlock Holmes story, inventing new cases or hobbies or supporting characters, but if the detective was portrayed as an empathic dog lover, that would conflict with his copyright. It’s hard to imagine that such a granular distinction truly served the best interests of creation: authors were free to write works such as Sherlock Holmes and the alien abduction more than a decade ago.
New creations and derivations are good for old intellectual properties. The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021. New versions arose immediately, such as a graphic novel and The Gay Gatsby, an LGBTQ take on. Even Enola Holmesthat the Doyle estate fought so strenuously, was well received, with Rotten tomatoes calling it “a breath of fresh air” and viewers lauding Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the empathetic Sherlock.