Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous literary detective in history. In recent years, we’ve seen a smorgasbord of reincarnations from the dramatic Team Downey productions of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows to the BBC’s Sherlock. And let’s not forget the newest face set to grace the extraordinary detective in 2015, Ian McKellen. Recently, the legendary character and his adventures came under fire in a copyright dispute, which has left the ingenious literary masterpiece mostly in the public domain.
The Sherlock Holmes Copyright Expires
As of November 2014, much of the Sherlock Holmes empire has officially been declared public domain by the United States Supreme Court. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Posner ruled that the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not require a licensing fee for an intended anthology of stories inspired by the infamous sleuth.
Judge Posner ruled that the copyright protections of the 50 Holmes works published before 1923 had expired. Essentially, as long as one does not write anything based on the Sherlock Holmes depicted in the last ten published works, one would not be required to pay a royalty fee. The last ten works are set to lose their copyright protection in 2022.
The Real Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a well-regarded surgeon and physician, even serving in the controversial Boer War in 1900 as a volunteer doctor. He also stood for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist twice for Scotland. He was a strong advocate for correcting injustice, going so far as investigating two closed cases, leading to the exoneration of the accused. In many ways, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the real Sherlock Holmes.
Although he will forever be tied to his most monumental, immortal, and popular literary work, Sir Doyle persists beyond the creation of Sherlock Holmes. In his best-known non-Holmes story, The Lost World, he tells the tale of a land lost in time. Yet, no matter how hard he may have tried to separate himself from Holmes, the brilliant character always persevered. Holmes survived death within the pages of his adventures and has even survived his creator’s death. In so many ways, he embodies the legacy every author wishes to leave.
The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes has left an endearing and long spanning legacy, not only in literature, but also on stage and screen. In prose, he brought about the marriage of fiction and forensic science. His use of small-scale evidence (hair, fingerprints, etc.) and analytical chemistry gained him the honor of being the only fictional character inducted in honorary fellowship by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2002. He popularized the investigative detective in literature, later used largely by writers like Agatha Christie.
It’s Hardly Elementary
Intriguingly, Holmes biggest legacy is mere creative license. We all know Sherlock for coining the phrase:
“Elementary, my dear Watson!”
Did you know Mr. Holmes never uttered these famous words? It’s true; it was never actually spoken by the detective in any of the 56 short stories or novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Ongoing Sherlock Productions
Perhaps Sherlock Holmes’ most enduring legacy outside of literature has been in the world of film. Holmes holds the Guinness world record for the “most portrayed movie character,” having been depicted by over 70 different actors in more than 200 movies since his first screen appearance in 1900. From 2011 to 2012, he was portrayed by three different actors:
- Robert Downey Jr on the big screen
- Benedict Cumberbatch in a BBC television series
- Jonny Lee Miller in an ABC series
It goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes will forever draw a sizeable audience. Now that he and his adventures are mostly public domain, it’s likely the Holmes’ legacy will be further expanded and taken to new, previously unimagined, heights. But the final ruling and refusal by the Supreme Court to hear the case brought forth by the Doyle’s estate does raise questions in the literary industry. Should copyrights be allowed to expire? If a writer as gifted as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creates a literary masterpiece enduring over a century, should licensing fees and royalties have limits? What do you think?
Additional Contributor: Carlo Solorzano
Feature Image Credit: Vadym Soloviov via 123RF Stock Photo