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Sherlock Holmes is free, US judge rules

A performer poses as a Sherlock Holmes human statue at King's Cross Square, outside the central London rail station, September 26, 2013
A performer poses as a Sherlock Holmes human statue at King's Cross Square, outside the central London rail station, September 26, 2013

The beloved British detective Sherlock Holmes is now free to be reimagined in the United States after a federal judge ruled that licensing fees are no longer required.

First introduced in 1887, Holmes entered the public domain in Britain years ago.

The literary icon has been kept alive in the public imagination with the help of scores of films -- including a recent series starring Robert Downey Jr. -- and popular television shows like the BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary.

But a quirk in US copyright law which protected ten short stories in the vast Holmes canon had allowed the descendants of author Arthur Conan Doyle to retain intellectual property rights in the United States.

A Holmes scholar challenged those fees after the Conan Doyle Estate threatened to block the distribution of a book of original short stories if the editors did not obtain a license to use the Holmes characters.

Judge Ruben Castillo rejected the estate's claim that since Holmes and his partner Watson were "continually developed" the copyright protecting the final ten stories should extend to the characters themselves.

"The effect of adopting Conan Doyle's position would be to extend impermissibly the copyright of certain character elements of Holmes and Watson beyond their statutory period," Castillo, chief justice of the northern district of Illinois, wrote in a 22-page opinion issued Monday.

Castillo ruled that only the "story elements" detailed in the ten short stories published after 1923 were protected and that everything else in the Holmes canon was "free for public use."

Holmes scholar Leslie Klinger, who challenged the estate, celebrated the ruling.

"Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world," Klinger said in a statement posted on his "Free Sherlock" website Friday.

"People want to celebrate Holmes and Watson. Now they can do so without fear of suppression by Conan Doyle’s heirs."

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