I am writing a short story and would like to name check Sherlock Holmes as a character; according to the ever reliable (?) Wikipedia the stories of Holmes are UK Public Domain. Does this mean I can use the character without royalties/etc if I publish/sell?

Note: I will be publishing in the UK.


1 Answer 1


Up front, I must say "I am not a lawyer." Heed the advice given above and consult a lawyer specializing in copyright law.

That said, it seems clear to me right now that publishing in the UK should be fine, but you could open yourself to a legal challenge from the Conan Doyle estate if you publish your work in the United States and do not contact the estate and purchase a license for your work.

The reason I say this is because the recent films from Warner Brothers, and the series from the BBC (plus others), received a license from the Doyle estate. So did the series "The Young Sherlock Holmes" by Andrew Lane, which specifically notes on their website that "The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain in the UK, and is thus free for use. The character is still in copyright in the USA, and will remain so until around 2020. Any book published in the USA which uses Sherlock Holmes as a character must be authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate."

That said, there is a law suit currently in progress against the estate in the United States asking for a declaratory judgement that copyright has expired on the works of Sherlock Holmes. According to recent press reports, the estate did not respond, and the judge has entered a default against the Doyle estate. Still a few legal hoops to jump through, and the judge must pass their ruling.

I have an UPDATE here http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/conan-doyle-estate-loses-appeal-712135

  • Whew, I hope the judge's decision mentioned in your update stands. Otherwise, an author's heirs could extend copyright literally forever by just publishing a new story using the same character once every 69 years. As a writer myself, I think the present "life of author plus 70 years" is ridiculously long.
    – Jay
    May 15, 2016 at 4:43
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    @Jay: You'll be pleased to know that although the Doyle estate tried to have it overturned, the Supreme Court wouldn't give them a hearing. There would probably need to be a circuit split to overturn it now, but given that Posner awarded fees it doesn't look like it was anywhere near a close call, so that's improbable.
    – Kevin
    Nov 15, 2018 at 4:47
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    (Also, this document contains some fascinating-if-true allegations about the status of the Conan Doyle copyrights. If its claims are correct, the "Doyle estate" that Mr. Klinger sued may have never owned any copyrights in the first place, and has apparently been going around extorting authors and filmmakers with fraudulent claims of copyright infringement.)
    – Kevin
    Nov 15, 2018 at 4:55
  • Although if the Doyle estate didn't own the copyright and their case is rejected for that reason, rather than for anything to do with copyright law, it may weaken the precedent.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 23, 2022 at 20:35

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