Sherlock Holmes and the curious case of expired copyright
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most enduring and easily recognizable characters in Western literature. For the better part of 127 years, the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth and his heterosexual life partner Dr. John Watson have captured the imagination of readers all over the world, inspiring countless films and television adaptations, influencing the development of real-life forensic science techniques and launching the popularity of the detective genre originally pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe and his 1844 short story “The Purloined Letter,” featuring Holmes’s fictional progenitor C. Auguste Dupin.
The Great Detective, known for his signature deerstalker hat, curved pipe, unparalleled powers of deduction and boredom-induced cocaine habit, is also one of the more iconic properties currently residing in the public domain, meaning anyone and everyone can publish original material featuring Holmes, Watson, the hard-headed Inspector Lestrade, the duplicitous femme fatale Irene Adler and the malevolent Professor Moriarty without paying royalties to the famously litigious Doyle estate, so long as they don’t infringe on certain elements introduced in 10 late-era Doyle tales, all of them appearing in the 1927 short story collection The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which are still protected under U.S. copyright law until roughly 2023.
Recently, however, the status of the character’s copyright became quite the three-pipe problem. Earlier this year, writer and attorney Leslie S. Klinger sued the Doyle estate for requiring him to pay a $5,000 licensing fee before his newest compilation of Holmes stories could be published. The collection, titled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes and co-edited by Klinger and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice author Laurie R. King, includes Doyle-inspired tales of murder and intrigue from the bestselling likes of Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver and Cornelia Funke. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Klinger’s favor last June. The estate tried to appeal to the Supreme Court earlier this month, but the justices, who share Holmes’s ability to pick and choose their cases, refused to hear the heirs’ petition and summarily dismissed the case.
The court’s decision should come as a relief to the creators behind the many Holmes-related projects currently flooding our airwaves and movie theaters. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s critically lauded BBC series Sherlock, which relocated Holmes and Watson from the foggy streets of Victorian England to the teeming technocracy of modern-day London and transformed Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman into the unlikeliest of household names, is expected to return for its fourth season at some point during the next two years, provided its co-stars can carve out time in their increasingly demanding schedules.
Elementary, another modernization, this one featuring British heartthrob Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as a newly feminized Watson solving mysteries in New York City, recently began its third season on CBS, despite sagging ratings and the onus of being constantly overshadowed by the superior BBC series. The oft-rumored third installment of director Guy Ritchie’s action-heavy franchise with Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, meanwhile, appears to have stalled for now, as Downey is distracted with his various Marvel commitments and Ritchie and Law are busy prepping their medieval epic Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.
The video game industry has also been quick to capitalize on the timeless popularity of the character. Last September saw the release of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, the latest installment in the award-winning series of mystery games The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Developed by Frogwares and published by Focus Home Interactive, the game, which consciously mirrors the agonizing moral dilemmas of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, asks the player -— -acting through Holmes himself – — to absolve or condemn suspected criminals based on factors such as circumstance and severity of offence.
For my money, though, the most promising Sherlockian tale currently in development is filmmaker Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, starring Sir Ian McKellen as the consulting detective, long-retired and living on his Sussex bee farm two years after the end of World War II. The plot kicks in when Holmes’s tragically deteriorating mind becomes fixated on solving old cases with the aid of his loyal housekeeper (Academy Award winner Laura Linney) and her adolescent, hero-worshipping son (Milo Parker).
The film, based on Mitch Cullin’s wonderful 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, has the potential to add something new and vital to the post-Doyle canon: a palpable sense of thematic maturity. The source material is a grand, moving treatise on the ravages of time that mourns for a bygone age of logic and civility while forcing the ultimate man of reason to confront the emotional totality of his life, including his sometimes one-sided relationship with Dr. Watson. That might sound more than a little depressing, but it’s also tremendously warm, tender and frequently funny. If Condon and McKellen imbue their big-screen adaptation with the same poignant magic they brought to Gods and Monsters, which imagined the last days of James Whale, the openly gay director of Frankenstein, the results should be fantastic.
No matter what the future holds for the residents of 221 B Baker Street, one thing is for certain: Now more than ever, the game is afoot!
Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” runs Fridays.