'Sherlock Holmes' goes to the Supreme Court for a case of copyright

Story highlights

  • Sherlock Holmes was fictional, but he lives on in novels and short stories
  • The estate of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is fighting a copyright case
  • A California writer wants to publish a new series of Holmes stories
  • The Conan Doyle estate wants the U.S. Supreme Court to solve the case

Step lively Watson, there's a mystery afoot at the Supreme Court -- and the estate of Sherlock Holmes' creator says only the nine justices can ultimately solve the Case of the Contested Copyright.

The estate of the late British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has asked the high court to block a California writer from moving ahead with plans to publish a new series of stories featuring the celebrated fictional detective and his friend Dr. Watson.

A federal appeals court in Chicago last month ruled in favor of California-based editor and lawyer Leslie Klinger, saying he did not have to pay royalty fees to the Conan Doyle estate, over his plans to publish a new volume of Holmes stories penned by contemporary authors.

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The estate then asked the high court to delay enforcement of the appeals court ruling, at least temporarily, until its legal team could prepare a more detailed petition for the justices to hear their case.

There was no indication when the court would rule. The nine-member bench is on a three-month recess, but is available to handle these time-sensitive matters.

Conan Doyle created one of the most famous and enduring characters in fiction, with four novels and 56 short stories published from 1887 to 1927. The final 10 stories remain under copyright protection in the United States until 2022, while the rest are in the public domain.

In their high court claim, the estate asserts Holmes and Watson "were not static but are dynamic literary characters who changed and developed throughout the Sherlock Holmes canon."

Their lawyers say that means the adventures of the fictional friends from decades ago cannot be appropriated today, based on older Conan Doyle works that are in the public domain.

"Many aspects of these characters' natures are not revealed until the final 10 stories, which are still under copyright protection" say the estate's lawyers. "The 10 stories are not set exclusively in the characters' old age but at various points throughout the characters' lives."

The financial stakes remain lucrative. The estate says the Holmes character has been portrayed in more than 200 films, and that it has a financial and creative interest in ensuring the detective "is not despoiled in a way that would irreparably damage the value of the Sherlock Holmes copyright."

Klinger had earlier paid a $5,000 licensing fee to the estate in 2011 for an initial work of re-imagined Holmes stories called "A Study in Sherlock." But he refused to pay a fee for a planned November sequel, "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes." Klinger's publisher, Pegasus Books, is supporting him in court.

Klinger's website describes him as "one of the world's foremost authorities on Sherlock Holmes and Dracula."

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In his blog, he dismisses the appeal to the Supreme Court. "The 7th Circuit [federal appeals court] ruled on June 22 in our favor, finding that creators were free to use the characters of Holmes, Watson, etc., so long as the creators did not infringe on the 'protected elements' in the remaining 10 copyrighted stories," said Klinger. "Clearly, the characters' names and most of their characteristics are not such 'protected elements.' Thus, to put it very loosely, Sherlock Holmes is 'free.'"

The case is Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. v. Klinger (14a47).

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