At the heart of the dispute is whether a character can be copyright protected over an entire series of works. The Doyle estate argues that a basic element of copyright law allows for that if the character is highly delineated, as opposed to a two-dimensional cartoon-like character who doesn’t change much over time.
In ruling against the estate, Judge Ruben Castillo called that a “novel legal argument” that was “counter to the goals of the Copyright Act.” The lawsuit was filed in Chicago because a literary agent for the Doyle estate is based in Illinois.
There’s no question that Holmes and Watson are highly complex characters. Conan Doyle produced a total of four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 stories between 1887 and 1927.
Klinger argues that everything you really need to know about Holmes and Watson is in the novels and stories published before 1923 that are in the public domain in the U.S. That includes their family backgrounds, education and a slew of character traits: Holmes’ Bohemian nature and cocaine use, erratic eating habits, his Baker Street lodgings, his methods of reasoning, his clever use of disguise, his skill in chemistry and even his weapon of choice, a loaded hunting crop.
“Everything that the lay person would think of as being a characteristic of Holmes or Watson is in those pre-1923 stories,” said Klinger, who is also an attorney and lives in Malibu, Calif. “In fact, some would say you could pick up almost everything you need from the very first story.”