Good news for all you aspiring fan fiction writers out there! At long last, 125 years after Arthur Conan Doyle first set pen to paper to craft “A Study in Scarlet,” the beloved detective archetype “Sherlock Holmes” is entering the public domain. If you are surprised to learn that, until now, Holmes and Watson have been continuously protected by copyright law, with all adaptations being legally require to pay royalties to the Conan Doyle estate, you are not alone. Conan Doyle died in 1930, so under American copyright law, the copyright on Holmes (and all of Doyle’s other creations) would have expired as long ago as 2005.
But in Great Britain, copyright protection is even stronger than it is here on the other side of the pond. In fact, even now, not all of the Holmes stories are free for public use. Watson’s second wife or the fact that he played rugby were established in later stories, and hence still protected by copyright. That’s right, you can write anything you want about John Watson, making it up out of whole cloth as you go. You can make him a pirate or an astronaut or a fireman, but try alleging that he is a rugby player and you could find yourself on the other side of a lawsuit. Conan Doyle’s estate still owns that concept.
The only benefit to absurd cases like these is to demonstrate to the public how ridiculous copyright law has become. The original purpose of these laws was to encourage innovation and allow authors to profit from their work. Does anyone imagine that Arthur Conan Doyle would have laid down his pen in a huff had he thought that he would only be able to earn money off of Holmes for 100 years instead of 125? Does anyone imagine that Great Britain has, as a result of its laws, shown more innovation than other countries where laws are more lax?
Consider the benefit that Sherlock Holmes has conferred on connoisseurs of detective fiction over the years. The character has been adapted dozens of time for film. Television series based on his exploits have reimagined the character in a number of different ways, as a youth, as a woman, and in a variety of updated settings. Authors have chronicled further adventures of Holmes and Watson, continuing their journeys together after Conan Doyle’s passing. All of these have brought value and enjoyment to fiction lovers for generations.
Yet all of these have been compelled (with a few exceptions where the estate was not energetic enough to pursue legal action) to jump through hoops to satisfy a dead author’s relatives and their lawyers before being allowed to proceed. Imagine the kinds of wondrous exploits to which we might have been party if these restrictions were relaxed earlier, or never enacted in the first place.
The idea that a fictional icon so omnipresent in our culture that 21 percent of Britons think he was an actual historical figure should still be “owned” by a single person after all these years is nonsensical. Characters like Holmes are a part of the common landscape of ideas that defines popular culture. It makes no more sense for governments to recognize ownership of Holmes than to grant copyrights for Santa Claus (who is real), Hamlet (who wasn’t) or King Arthur (who might have been).
Copyright law is inconsistent, incoherent and incompatible with liberty. Incidents like the Holmes case should serve as a wake up call for all of us to call for reforms that actually make sense.