Is Sherlock Holmes Still a Licensed Character?

When Leslie Klinger was preparing an anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories written by modern day authors (In the Company of Sherlock Holmes), he received a letter in the mail from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate demanding a hefty licensing fee. Klinger is a well-known Holmes expert, author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and consultant on the recent Holmes films.  Only ten of the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories remain under copyright in the United States.  Klinger felt that the fifty public domain stories establish the defining story and character elements, thus freeing up the characters to be used in fiction today. So Klinger took the Conan Doyle estate to federal court last February in Illinois, asking the court to affirm the public domain status of Conan Doyle’s work in the United States and revoking the right of the estate to collect the licensing fee.

The strange part is that no one from the estate showed up on the court date. By default, the court ruled in favor of Klinger.

Now Klinger is demanding that a judgement be rendered to prevent the Conan Doyle estate from collecting any further licensing fees for the Sherlock characters. The estate had just recently licensed the Sherlock Holmes films and television shows in the United States -- and presumably made a small fortune in the progress.  But no response has been issued from the heirs to Klinger’s new demands. Why are they not fighting Klinger in court?  If Klinger wins a second time, the estate would be deprived of all future character licensing rights in the United States. That’s a lot of money to give up.

Perhaps the Conan Doyle estate feels they don’t have the appropriate legal ground to carry out the fight.  If so, the estate has been coasting on a bluff -- a bluff that Klinger has now called out and stands poised to win upon.


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