The game’s afoot dear Holmes aficionados. No, it’s not next week’s premiere of series 3 of Sherlock, but the opportunity to sit behind the mind of the world’s greatest detective.
I speak of course of the civil complaint filed by Leslie Klinger against the Doyle estate arguing that since most of Sherlock and Watson and the rest is in the public domain, writing about him should not be subject to licensing fees. The defining characteristics and most of the significant events in the character’s life are clearly defined before his final ten cases, the only ones still in copyright in the United States. Does the copyright on the character expire with his last adventure, or with his first?
For the moment it seems that a writer may indeed be able to write his own Sherlock Holmes adventures for fun (and profit) as long as they don’t contain details from the stories in copyright (though all of these are expiring over the next 8 years or so rendering the point inevitably moot).
If the legal precedent stands it opens up an interesting door. Take another acclaimed mystery writer, Dorothy Sayers, and her character Lord Peter Wimsey. The first book in that series, Whose Body?, is in the public domain and establishes all of the main and recurring characters. It could be argued that an author could take this book as a starting point and write their own series of Wimsey adventures, so long as they don’t intersect with the ten books still in copyright, and not have to pay the Sayers estate anything.
Or take another popular Doyle character, Professor Challenger. Two of his three novel length adventures are public domain, The Lost World and The Poison Belt, which chronicle dinosaurs in modern times and the end of the world respectively.
Now these might seem like old stories and who would really want to read them anyway? Well, if Downton Abbey is any indicator, aristocratic stories at the turn of the twentieth century have a market and Wimsey has some extra characteristics of being shell-shocked post war vet which could speak to modern sensibility. And Challenger is Indiana Jones before there ever was such a thing, except grouchier and with a much more magnificent beard. A competent writer could make money off characters only half in the public sphere.
I’m not sure what I as an author think of this. Especially in the case of something like Wimsey, it would give someone else license to completely change the trajectory of the character, but parallel interpretations can be interesting, especially with nine decades of distance between them. It might end up being more beneficial to the author’s full body of work that otherwise people might ignore. But on the other hand, it might be little more than glorified fan fiction, a tool for lazy writers to gain recognition they might otherwise have. I want to be able to tell the full story of my characters and then leave it at that, but I also could see the appeal of taking a crack at a Challenger story.
The legal decision will likely be more complicated but what do you guys think? Would you read an unlicensed Sherlock Holmes story written by somebody else? Would you be okay with other authors reshaping your characters long after you’re dead?