Sherlock Holmes Scholar Sues Arthur Conan Doyle's Estate
By now, we're all too familiar with long-dead authors' estates suing people and organizations for various reasons. Last year, J.R.R. Tolkien's relatives brought about two lawsuits, one against The Hobbit producers over some slot machines, the other against a professor in New Zealand, forbidding him to use the word 'hobbit' in his lecture. Also, William Faulkner's estate sought legal action against Sony Pictures for allegedly misquoting the author in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.
This time, however, it's an estate's turn to get sued. Sherlock Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger filed a civil suit last week against Arthur Conan Doyle's estate, arguing that Holmes, Watson, and all associated characters and settings are public domain, and therefore not subject to licensing fees by, as Klinger labels them, "some distant relatives" of the writer.
Klinger alleges that estate representatives contacted his publisher Pegasus Books and demanded payment for an upcoming anthology titled In The Company of Sherlock Holmes. If no licensing fee was paid, the estate threatened to dissuade major distributors from carrying the book. Klinger hopes to convince the court to "put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying."
Klinger acknowledges the rights still maintained by the estate. Quoted on Free-Sherlock!, a website devoted to the lawsuit, he said:
The Estate still owns copyrights in the U.S. on 10 of the stories about Holmes—some of the stories that appeared in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. As a lawyer myself, I respect those rights, and in fact I licensed them when I published my New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.
Two years ago, Klinger and fellow Sherlockian Laurie S. King published without incident A Study in Sherlock, featuring contemporary authors, Neil Gaiman and Lee Child among them, reinterpreting Holmes tales. King also wrote a series of mystery novels featuring Holmes.
Does Klinger have any legal standing here? This case does raise an interesting question: should popular characters and their universes remain under the control of their creators' family, or should anyone have the right to use those characters at will?
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