US court allows free use of Holmes and Watson characters

Illinois court allowed free use of literary characters, detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson, without paying licensing fees to the heirs of British author Arthur Conan Doyle, their inventor.

The trial was run on the suit filed by Leslie Klinger, US-based publisher, New York Times website reports. In recent years, the publisher printed several volumes of works by different authors about Sherlock Holmes and was forced to pay the heirs of Conan Doyle about $5,000 in license fees.

As the New York Times notes, the copyright for pre-1923 UK stories about Holmes and Watson has expired, and the legal successor of the writer, as represented by the British company Conan Doyle Estate, eligible only for the last ten stories about the great detective. The company argued that its copyright applies to all the characters in these ten stories. Conan Doyle heirs threatened to veto selling the new books about Holmes in the online stores of Amazon and Barnes & Noble if publishers fail to pay royalties for the use of illustrious personages.

After studying the Klinger’s lawsuit, Illinois state judge Ruben Castillo ruled that the names of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, as well as the fictional London address Baker Street, 221B, can be used freely, without paying any fees to Conan Doyle heirs. The copyright protection applies only to the plot of last ten original stories about the great detective, including the story about the second marriage of Dr. Watson and a reference about his being a rugby player in the London team "Blackheath".

"According to the new decision of the court, you can write that Sherlock Holmes was coke addict, admirer of martial arts, sometimes living on 221B Baker Street together with his friend Dr. Watson. However, you can’t talk about Dr. Watson’s sporting background, the juicy facts of his second marriage, or about retired Holmes," commented The Guardian (UK newspaper) on the decision of the US judge.

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