Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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11 comments on “Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

  1. I can remember working my way through the Holmes stories when I was in my teens and twenties, as well as the Meyers and Saberhagen books and probably some others. Enjoyed them all immensely.

    As a fiction writer, though, I’m awfully fond of my OWN characters. The closest I ever came to using someone else’s characters occurred when I took a stab at writing scripts for Star Trek Next Generation. The show was canceled about the time I thought I was getting good at it. Then I thought I might try an “X-Files” novel, but that morphed into a police-procedural novel of my own.

    I think I’m with you on this one, pretty much; I’d rather write my own stuff than use the products of the imagination of others. (Unless they maybe want me to write a Star Trek movie, someday, hint hint Tinseltown!!)

    • It’s always possible! There’s a guy here in Wellington, Neil Cross, who writes Dr Who – as in, scripts for the actual BBC show. I have absolutely no idea how he managed to get to that point (and boy, do I wish I did!).

      But yeah, if Tinseltown or BBC doors won’t open, it’s better to write your own stuff.

  2. Why not? They’re still among the best.

  3. EagleAye says:

    Certainly. Doyle didn’t become famous by rehashing someone else’s characters. He invented really cool new ones. If a writer wants to leave mark on the world, it’s only done with unique characters.

    • Absolutely. The intriguing thing for me is that Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes is pretty much that of someone on the Aspberger continuum – over a century ago and fairly unique by nineteenth century standards. The way ahead, I think, is to figure out the twenty-first century equivalent…and it won’t be Aspberger.

      • EagleAye says:

        I think a few things have been tried. Have you ever seen the TV show, “Monk?” It’s about brilliant crime-solver with a severe case of OCD. It’s so bad that he needs a “minder” to keep keep him fed and his environment stable. Otherwise he can become quite overwhelmed. It’s a comedy/crime-solving show that’s terrifically written and very funny. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look.

  4. Fan Fic is alive and booming. It would not surprise me to see a rash on new releases. As for the subject of writers coming up with something new, The door is wide open and there s no good reason not to produce original material. That’s the path I’ve chosen to walk.

  5. Lemuel says:

    Characters are always borrowed and stories retold, sometimes well and sometimes badly. I’m a fan of it. The world would be a poorer place if Robin Hood and the legends of King Arthur were still locked up by copyright law and off limits to musicians, film makers, comic book artists and authors. Some adaptions of the above are absolutely terrible – but others have allowed the characters to evolve in a way that resonates well with modern audiences.

    I put Sherlock Holmes into a similar category. The recent BBC adaption was brilliant – I absolutely loved it. It might seem like cheating to borrow characters or stories, but I suspect that in some ways to take ownership of them, staying true to the expectations of audiences that are familiar with them while still giving them your own twist.. that seems challenging.

    With regards to fan fiction of contemporary works – I see it as a good training ground, and perhaps a way of expressing oneself and engaging with a community, harmless for the most part but ideally used as a platform building towards creating unique worlds and works.

  6. susielindau says:

    This is so interesting! I wonder if writers willift passages that will appear in best sellers. I gotta believe they would have to be reinterpreted. Readers are pretty smart!
    Thanks for bringing this to the party! I am on an airplane and will lose service soon! Have fun clicking on inks!!!

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