No Suit, Sherlock: Doyle Estate is Embroiled in Public Domain Legal BattleS

Just like the tweedy detective, Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts are obsessive, fanatical, and even controlling. Hence—Sherlock Holmes and the Clamorous Debate Over Public Domain Rights.

This current skirmish pits old-guard and new-guard Sherlockians in a debate about whether Conan Doyle's creation should be a copyright-free character. Just like A Scandal in Bohemia, this conflict is replete with intrigue, British insults, and particularly eccentric characters. Here are the key players:

  • The Baker Street Irregulars: an invitation-only literary club that seems to host a mix of hoity-toity types and people who are amused to see Holmes continue on into the modern world. Doubleday editor Christopher Morley founded the organization in 1934 to maintain "the myth the Sherlock Holmes was not a myth."
  • Baker Street Babes: a group of young female Holmes fans (the Irregulars did not allow females until 1990). The Babes host a regular podcast about the detective. While most Irregulars seem to like the Babes, a former editor of the Irregular's journal, Philip Shreffler, compared their podcast to "a potting shed on which is scrawled desultory graffiti"—a British insult I don't understand, but nonetheless sounds harsh.
  • Mr. Leslie S. Klinger: a Malibu lawyer who edited the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page "New Annotated Sherlock Holmes" and is currently editing the new volume "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes".
  • Jon Lellenberg: a retired Defense Department strategist who has served as the "hard-nosed American agent" of Conan Doyle's estate for three decades. He has condoned lucrative projects like BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary. While Lellenberg was once an official historian for the Irregulars, he is estranged from the group.

Klinger has filed a suit which argues that only 10 of the 60 Conan Doyle stories and novels about the detective remain under copyright, so many fees paid to the estate are unwarranted. The estate is currently trying to collect a licensing fee for "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes," an upcoming collection of new Holmes stories, featuring works by writers like Sara Paretsky and Michael Connelly.

In support of this upcoming collection and other creative endeavors about the detective, Klinger advocates that Doyle's character be considered in the public domain. In mid-February a Holmes scholar and Irregular member also filed a legal complaint, which argued that the world of Sherlock should be in the public domain. Mr. Klinger has noted that he wants to heighten the stakes of his argument and formally oppose the estate's trademark claims.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate has always been a source of much debate and even conspiracy. In 2004 a prominent Holmes scholar was strangled with a shoelace right before a lucrative auction of some of Doyle's letters, which Mr. Richard Lancelyn Green vociferously argued should not be sold piecemeal, but rather given over to scholarship. It sounds like this whole bunch could do with a little break from reading whodunits.

[New York Times, image via Ostill/Shutterstock]