This past Valentine’s Day, lawyer and editor Les Klinger (I know Les, he and I are past presidents and current members of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America — the latter having nothing to do with this matter) had his representatives file a civil action in the district court of Illinois against the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. Dr. Doyle, Sir Arthur, was the creator of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his able friend and associate Dr. John H.
Watson. The Holmes name survives and thrives even today, and I’d wager even a video game playing 11-year-old has heard of this enduring character. Essentially Les is seeking to put to rest once and for all is Holmes in the public domain or not.
This came up because Les, author of the annotations of the 56 Doyle Holmes short stories and four novels, was preparing with Laurie R. King, author of a series of novels featuring a retired, aged Holmes advising and aiding Mary Russell in her investigations, an anthology of new short stories entitled In the Company of Sherlock Holmes. The publisher of the collection, Pegasus Books, received a message from the Doyle Estate stating, according to Les’ press release, “…implied that if the Estate wasn’t paid a license fee, they’d convince the major distributors not to sell the book.” Les was informed by the publisher the anthology wouldn’t be released unless this contention was resolved.
I was surprised by the Estate sending this message for the common “wisdom” has been that Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, Irene Adler, et al. long ago entered public domain. This is evidenced by small and big presses doing new stories from Holmes vs. Dracula, Holmes teamed up with paranormal reporter Carl Kolchak of Night Stalker fame, Holmes teamed-up with Batman, and on and on. There’s also been recently the retconned, steampunkish Victorian era movies with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to the modern day junkie Holmes in recovery in a Manhattan brownstone in television’s Elementary. And let’s not forget the UK Sherlock taking place in today’s London that cleverly re-imagines material from those original Doyle stories. I’m pretty certain none of the entities doing their various versions of Holmes have acknowledged the Doyle estate, let alone paid a licensing fee.
As a writer, I’m somewhat torn about this business of one’s creation entering public domain for anybody to use. I’d like my kids and their kids to reap the benefits (not that there’s been a windfall of dinero) of the characters I’ve done my best to bring to life on the page. But it is a pretty cool thing to be able to take a public domain character like Frankenstein, okay Frankenstein’s monster, but you know who I mean, and do a mash-up with him and Abe Lincoln, our 16th president being a public figure, as two gunfighters in the Old West.
I suppose then it’s better to have writers who hopefully have some affection for your characters put them through their paces in new outings than to have them disappear into history’s dustbin. Too your take on your characters will also hopefully still be around for readers to enjoy and compare to how others interpret your creations.
The valentine that endures. How sweet it is.