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New Sherlock Holmes mystery: Where's my copyright?

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A federal judge has ruled that Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson, are no longer protected by copyright, and that all elements of the famous sleuth's stories created by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before 1923 are now in the public domain.

The court case required U.S. District Judge Rubén Castillo to become something of a Sherlock Holmes expert, and in a 22-page ruling issued last week in Chicago, he began by summarizing the four novels and 56 short stories Conan Doyle wrote about the fictional detective: The character first appeared in 1887. The final 10 Holmes stories appeared in the U.S. in 1923.

Before Castillo’s ruling, only the final 10 stories retained their copyright in the United States. The rest of the Holmes “canon” was in the public domain, though Conan Doyle’s estate claimed that those 10 copyrighted stories were enough to prevent anyone from using the Holmes character in new works. Many book publishers and movie studios thus entered into licensing agreements with the estate.

Castillo's ruling allows anyone to use the Holmes character as long as they don’t use elements from the 1923 stories, which include details about Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s past.

"Conan Doyle fails to offer a bright line rule or workable legal standard for determining when characters are sufficiently developed to warrant copyright protection through an entire series," the judge wrote.

The lawsuit was brought by Leslie S. Klinger, editor of a new collection of stories,In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.”

"Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world,” Klinger said on his “Free Sherlock” website. “This ruling clearly establishes that. Whether it’s a reimagining in modern dress (like the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ or CBS-TV’s ‘Elementary’), vigorous interpretations like the Warner Bros. fine Sherlock Holmes films, or new stories by countless authors inspired by the characters, people want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle’s heirs.”

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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