On December 23rd a federal court in Chicago declared Sherlock Holmes public domain in America, striking down the last obstacle to my dream of writing my contribution to the canon in which Holmes teams up with Dr Who to recover powerful scriptures which have been stolen from the library of St John the Beheaded only to discover that the fiend behind the plot is his own brother, Sherrinford, who is in fact a member of a cult led by a telepathic slug whose plan is to turn all its followers into insect people. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it had been done.
Holmes fell into the Swiss ravine of public domain in the UK in 1997 with the death of Conan-Doyle’s last remaining direct descendent, the accomplished air force commander Dame Jean Conan-Doyle, who had employed her last years and remaining influence on the Sherlock Holmes industry in the UK to encourage quality world-wide. Now U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo has opened the floodgates entirely to the sea of untreated fan-fic that will doubtless follow his ruling.
And what dross there’ll be. We’ll probably see modernizations about a mental patient who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes being treated by a psychiatrist named Watson, except that, too, was done in the 1971 play and film, They Might Be Giants. And of course the series Elementary, in which Holmes is a recovering drug addict in current-day New York has been in production for several seasons before Justice Castillo’s landmark decision. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as a Holmes who relies on text messaging and Youtube has somehow found audiences in the US under the dark restrictions of pre-Castillo era.
So it’ll be in the wild-west frontier of electronic publishing where most of the offenses will multiply like rats with no regard to the canon, unlike considered homages like A Time For Sherlock Holmes (1983) in which Holmes and Watson are able to battle Moriarity into infinity thanks to a youth serum. There’ll be no way, now, to distinguish the strictly compliant pastiches that pit Holmes against Dr. Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, 1979) and Fu Manchu (Ten Years Beyond Baker Street, 1984) and Jack the Ripper (The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, 1978) and, of course, Dracula (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, 1978).
Note that there’s one caveat to the ruling and it’s to be the foundation of the appeal to be launched later this month — US copyright has yet to expire on the entirety of the original Sherlock Holmes library. There remain ten final stories released in the US after 1922 which still belong to the remaining Doyle estate. For those planning their own take on the great detective, this means that only features and characteristics established before then are fair game. So you can refer to Watson and Holmes, of course, and 221B Baker Street and Mrs. Hudson and Moriarty and LeStrade and Mycroft and Toby the crime-fighting Spaniel/Lurcher mutt, but you’ll have to craft a plot that somehow steers clear of Watson’s second wife.
So if you’ve been waiting for the legal all-clear to write your Sherlock Holmes/Captain Nemo mashup now you have it. Just try to take an original perspective, if you can find one remaining, and show a little respect for the time-travelling monster-fighting detective who’s kept us safe from the evil machinery of Dr. Moriarty and his space-invaders.