In a 10-month-long dispute between the Conan Doyle Estate and writer/editor Leslie Klinger, the trial court ruled 50 of the Sherlock Holmes stories, all published prior to 1923, are in the public domain. Ten stories published after 1923 are protected by copyright in the US.
The court held elements introduced in the Sherlock Holmes stories published after 1923, such as Watson having a second wife, remain under copyright in the United States.
The UK copyright for all the Sherlock Holmes stories expired in 1980. According to UK law, the term of copyright protection is the life of the author plus 50 years. Mr. Doyle died in 1930.
Even though the works were originally published in England, they still receive copyright protection in other countries. The protection in the US, is based solely on US law. So why is 1923 the magic year in the US, the short answer is with implementation of the Copyright Term Extension Act it was determined that works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. “Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019, when works published in 1923 will expire. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on.”
"It's elementary my dear Watson, Sherlock Holmes might still have copyright protection." Not precisely the definitive answer one expects from Sherlock's reasoning of all things - even the intricacies of copyright law.
The recent lawsuit filed against the estate of Sir Author Conan Doyle might bring out heirs of other great works created in the late 1800's and early 20th century to see just how long copyright protection can be stretched.
The character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in publication in 1887 and was featured in four novels and 56 short stories spanning until 1927. According to US Copyright Law, the works written and published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. That means the characters, story lines and plots are free for use. The Estate asserts the works between 1923 and 1927 are infringed by the book In the Company of Sherlock Holmes scheduled for publication by Random House. In order to head-off an infringement suit, author/editor Leslie Klinger filed a declaratory judgment action asking the Judge to find the copyright on certain works featuring Sherlock Holmes and certain elements of the stories has expired.
The Complaint filed does a great job laying out the facts regarding when certain elements were first used in the Sherlock Holmes stories and why those elements are in the public domain.
Also visit the Conan Doyle Estate website to see which Sherlock Holmes projects have been "licensed" or "authorized."
On another interesting note, the Conan Doyle Estate Limited has been busy filing trademark applications for the brand SHERLOCK HOLMES. In 2010 the estate filed six intent to use trademark application featuring the name SHERLOCK HOLMES. Based on US Patent and Trademark office filings, none of these trademarks are currently in use by the Estate. The image above of Holmes with the Pipe is a registered trademark of the The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company. According to the Conan Doyle Estate Website, the Estate is pursuing cancellation of this trademark registration.