Sherlock Holmes to Enter Public Domain


Sherlock Holmes statue silhouette in London | Image by sergomezlo/Shutterstock

The remaining mysteries of Sherlock Holmes are set to enter the public domain in the United States in 2023. As a result, artists can now share, perform, reuse, repurpose, or sample the pipe-puffing detective without gaining permission from the Doyle estate.

Under U.S. copyright law, a copyrighted work produced after 1978 will enter the public domain 70 years after the death of a work’s author.

However, the 1927 book The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes had an original copyright length of 75 years. The copyright was later extended an additional 20 years under the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 despite legal attempts to make Holmes available to the public earlier.

The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Act because it was passed just prior to Disney losing rights to Mickey Mouse.

As it stands, Steamboat Willie, the first depiction of the Disney mouse, will enter the public domain next year. Although Steamboat Willie resembles Mickey Mouse in many ways, creators may face legal consequences if they stray from the rudimentary 1928 cartoon.

Other notable works published in 1927 will also enter the public domain, such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, and Agatha Christie’s The Big Four.

Beyond classic works of fiction, many songs and films have now entered the public domain, such as Puttin’ on the Ritz, (I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream, and the 1927 science fiction film Metropolis.

Last year, A.A. Milne’s 1926 children’s book series, Winnie the Pooh, entered the public domain. Consequently, independent filmmakers will debut a sinister portrayal of the lovable pooh-bear in an upcoming film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

As many characters become available for creators, others have inevitably been lost in the sands of time due to lengthy copyright laws, argued Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain.

“For the vast majority — probably 99% — of works from 1927, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyright. Yet they remained off limits, for no good reason,” Jenkins wrote. “The works listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more works are waiting to be rediscovered.”

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