As previously discussed, a federal judge ruled in 2014 that the character of Sherlock Holmes (as well as Holmes canon elements like Watson and Moriarty) was in the public domain – at least with reference to elements that appeared in print before January 1, 1923.

The character of Holmes was first introduced by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a novel published in 1887.  The last Doyle short story featuring Holmes was published in 1927.

The Doyle estate’s copyright lawyers previously contended that all the characters should remain under copyright protection until the copyright term expires for the 1927 story – in 2022.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Judge Richard Posner wrote:

With the net effect on creativity of extending the copyright protection of literary characters to the extraordinary lengths urged by the estate so uncertain, and no legal grounds suggested for extending copyright protection beyond the limits fixed by Congress, the estate’s appeal borders on the quixotic.

Judge Posner said that any new additions to the characters that were made after 1923 could be protected, but “the alterations do not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters.”

Mr. Holmes

Now the Doyle estate conceded that the earlier Holmes works are in the public domain, but claims that a new movie, Mr. Holmes, and the book on which it is based, infringe the copyright in those later works. The complaint also includes a cause of action for trademark infringement.

The new movie was directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and stars Ian McKellen (Gandalf) as an aging Holmes.

The estate is suing Miramax, the US distributor of the film, as well as the screenwriter and others.

The case is Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. v. Miramax and the complaint can be seen here.


The lawsuit illustrates the complications than can ensue when adapting a body of work about related characters that is only partially in the public domain.

According to the Doyle estate, other major productions that have used the Holmes character – including the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (shown above) – have all taken a license from the estate to avoid such disputes.

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Photo Attribution: “Benedict Cumberbatch filming Sherlock cropped” by Benedict_Cumberbatch_filming_Sherlock.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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