The Emancipation of Sherlock Holmes

Well well well, look who’s ALL-THE-WAY in the public domain now.

I’ve been waiting years for this moment. Forgive me for basking in it.

As an author of (so far) fourteen Sherlock Holmes stories appearing in a variety of publications, I’ve been watching this glacial development closely. The character of Sherlock Holmes, in case you were wondering, has been in the public domain for quite some time. But it was only as of January 1, 2023, that the very final stories, published in 1927 and collected in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, crossed the threshold in all remaining territories and jurisdictions.

So why is this important, considering Sherlock Holmes movies have been made and new stories published with impunity for years? Because it stands as the final vestige of a copyright still clung to by the litigious Conan Doyle estate. They’ve been guarding the last scraps of Sir Arthur’s work jealously, even though he’s been dead since 1930 and the remaining descendants are distant at best. Nevertheless, they took every opportunity to use their diminishing copyright as a cudgel against anyone who wanted to print new Holmes material. Their excuses for this behaviour were thin at best, but many publishing houses considered it easier to throw them a few grand as a token tribute, just to make them go away.

That is, until one stood up to them, took them to court, and had a judge tell them to knock that shit off.

Since then, they’ve become pretty quiet. But that didn’t stop them, a couple of years ago, from trying to shake down Netflix for some bucks for the first Enola Holmes movie. Their claim was that since Sherlock Holmes shows some emotion in that film, that content falls under the copyright for The Casebook. Because Holmes never showed emotion before that book.

Complete bullshit. And the judge saw right through it. Case dismissed.

Which brings me to my tenuous connection to the estate.

I started writing Sherlock Holmes material largely by accident in 2015. What began as a simple recommendation from one editor to another led to an enormous amount of material that will one day be collected into three different volumes.

Ridiculously ambitious, but that’s a debate for another time.

The second story I ever wrote for MX Publishing was called The Adventure of the Cat’s Claws and filled in the backstory for The Veiled Lodger. I’ve discussed it here before. Suffice to say, The Veiled Lodger is one of the dreaded (some would say dreadful) final stories from 1927. Conan Doyle was nearing the end of his life and was sick of Sherlock Holmes, so he was phoning it in at this point. And because my story heavily referenced it, it butted up against lingering copyright.

I got away with it though. Largely because the anthology was for charity, raising money to restore Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old house. As such, it got the official seal of approval from the estate. Said seal even appears right on the cover of the book.

Here’s where rights issues get murky.

My position was that since the estate had already given my story a de facto rubber stamp, I should be clear to reprint it without issue. Nevertheless, I was cautious, and didn’t want to get into a legal entanglement that could cost me thousands. So I contacted the estate directly and asked, ever so politely, if it was okay if I reprinted Cat’s Claws in a collection sooner rather than later.

I heard from someone in legal, who assured me they’d get back to me about that.

Never did. Stonewalled.

And why not? There wasn’t a buck to be made.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until today.

Today is the day that all rights to The Adventure of the Cat’s Claws unambiguously revert to me. I can continue to explore some of those characters from The Veiled Lodger (and I will) and nobody can say shit.

Not that the first volume of stories is ready to go just yet. I still have a couple more I want to complete, concerning Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, and Wiggins of the Baker Street Irregulars, before I focus my full Sherlockian attention on volume two, and what everyone got up to during World War I.

But I feel a hurdle has been jumped, and I’m always relieved when the rights to any of my work come home to roost at last. There they shall remain, under my protection, until the moment I flatline.

At that point, the rights to all my work I still own immediately enter the public domain. No protracted wait periods lasting decades. No greedy corporations camping on an associated trademark. No ne’er-do-well second cousins twice removed trying to profit on the work of a distant relation they never even men.

Public domain. All of it. As soon as I assume room temperature and it’s medically confirmed I’m not coming back.

Because H. P. Lovecraft got it right.

Die alone and unloved, with no one who gives two shits about anything you ever wrote, and no heirs trying to lay claim to royalties. Go to your grave a failure, never live to see your influence and success in subsequent centuries. Everything goes copyright free, for anyone to reprint and exploit. Immortality assured.

And then be glad you’re too dead to give a damn about everyone losing their minds over the racist crap you wrote in cherry-picked passages when you were alive.

It’s the formula for success.