The adventures of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, have been adapted into various forms of media for over a hundred years, and that’s because no one has the rights of the Great Detective, and here’s why. Created by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes first appeared in A Study in Scarlet in 1887 which quickly became a massive hit. In total, there are 4 novels and 56 short stories documenting the cases handled by Holmes and his friend and biographer John Watson.
The influence and popularity of Sherlock Holmes have been stable for decades, inspiring other authors to continue their adventures, and many of their stories fit into T.V., movies, video games and more.
However, there was a sudden popularity outburst of Sherlock Holmes adaptations a few years ago, and while this may just be a coincidence, the truth is that the rights of characters and stories have made the transformations quite easy.
The rights to Sherlock Holmes, the stories, and the rest of the characters have gone through a roller coaster: they expired in the United Kingdom and Canada in 1980, revived in 1996, and expired in 2000. Since then, Doyle’s works have been in the public sphere in those areas. In the U.S., however, it is a very different story. In 2013, Leslie S., attorney and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes asking the court to acknowledge Holmes and company were public domain in the U.S. The case prompted the question: Does the character’s copyright continue even after the works with that character are out of copyright?
The Conan Doyle Estate argued that even though the stories were in the public sphere, there were still others under copyright, and therefore Sherlock Holmes is under copyright. The court ruled in Klinger’s favour. The stories and characters of the Holmes universe are now in the public sector in the U.S. – excluding The Case-Book, minus “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”, “The Problem of Thor Bridge” and “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”. The rights to those stories will expire between 2020 and 2023.
However, those nine stories serve as the source of some of the main characters, such as Holmes and Watson’s true friendship. And the variants still need permission from the Doyle Estate.
Nevertheless, being in the public sphere certainly facilitates transformations, and Sherlock Holmes’ popularity remains one of the most beloved characters in pop culture, no matter how many versions are made for T.V., film, stage and more.