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“Marry him, murder him, do anything you like.” Klinger vs Conan Doyle Estate

4 min read – September 15, 2013

The #FreeSherlock campaign powered by Leslie Klinger began some months back when the Conan Doyle Estate demanded he pay for the use of the characters in an upcoming book due to the characters being bound by copyright. Klinger believing the Estate to have acted wrongly, as the majority of the stories are free from copyright law, filed a lawsuit. After a period of no-response from the Estate they eventually responded to Klinger’s suit saying:

“Plaintiff’s position would create multiple personalities out of Sherlock Holmes: a ‘public domain’ version of his character attempting to only use only public domain traits, next to the true character Sir Arthur created. But there are not sixty versions of Sherlock Holmes in the sixty stories; there is one complex Sherlock Holmes. To attempt to dismantle Holmes’s character is not only impossible as a practical matter, but would ignore the reality that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a single complex character complete in sixty stories.”

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The argument is simple. All but nine Sherlock Holmes Adventures are still under copyright, but only in America. The Estate believes that because these stories are still bound that all of Holmes should be bound. They worry that if Holmes is public domain it will create a Holmes with multiple personalities. Three questions immediately come to mind: 1. What will the Estate do when, in a few years time, the final stories are officially public domain? 2. They don’t seem bothered by the various on-screen adaptations that have multiple personalities. 3. How can they take this approached when Doyle himself did not care about his character and is quoted saying to William Gillette, “Marry him, murder him, do anything you like.” If the creator of Sherlock Holmes didn’t care what happened to the character how can the Estate say with conviction that Sherlock Holmes is only complete within the 60 stories?

Who is Sherlock Holmes?


The basic picture from A Study in Scarlet through to the Final Problem is this: Holmes is a consulting Detective. Lives at 221b Baker Street in London. His best friend is Doctor John H. Watson late of the Army Medical Department attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. Has a landlady named Mrs Hudson. Works often with Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Has a brother named Mycroft who practically is the British Government. His arch-enemy is the fiendish Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. Holmes possesses great powers of observation and deduction that enables him to draw what appear to be grand conclusions from simple, little facts. Holmes has a drug problem that Watson dislikes. Holmes has no interest in women for a love-like relationship. He leaves women to Watson as that is his department. It doesn’t matter to him how the solar system works. He needs problems and work as his mind rebels stagnation.

That is the basic picture painted by Doyle and all done by the Final Problem, the story Doyle meant to end Holmes’ career forever. Since the characters creation we’ve seen many different versions of Holmes.

On Stage:

William Gillette: Sherlock Holmes


“Marry him, murder him, do anything you like” – Doyle’s response to Gillette’s wanting to give Holmes a love interest in his play.

On Screen:

Nicolas Rowe: Young Sherlock Holmes


A young John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes while in boarding school.

Michael Cane: Without A Clue.


A comedy – where Holmes is simply an act and Watson is the brains behind it all.

Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes.

sherlock holmes 21

Has interest in Irene Adler, drug addiction is swapped with drinking, has a bro-mance with Watson, and tries to discourage Watson’s engagement. A rather selfish and dependent interpretation.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Sherlock.


Modern day London. A sibling rivalry between himself and Mycroft.  More of a recluse and far more rude and friendless than his literary counterpart.

Jonny Lee Miller: Elementary


Based in Modern NYC. Thrives of sexual encounters with prostitutes, recovering from a drug addiction, has extreme outbursts of anger. Was in a relationship with Irene Adler whom he was ‘in love with’ and who turned out to be Moriarty. His Watson is a female and Miss Hudson is a transsexual.

In novels:

My Dear Watson by Margaret Park Bridges – Sherlock is a woman in disguise.


The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer – Holmes invented Moriarty as a result of his drug addiction.


These are but a few examples. I cannot say it is correct to claim that if Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain it would create multiple personalities for one simple reason: it’s already happened. Holmes of Elementary is in no way the Holmes of the WB film, and neither is the Holmes of BBC’s Sherlock. All of which the Estate profits from. There are many Holmes and Watson’s out there on film and in books. It’s quite an elementary deduction – the Estate do not wish to lose the money they would have got. However, should they lose this case the big players like CBS, WB, and BBC wouldn’t be paying them for the use of the characters anymore.

Sherlock Holmes is not complete within 60 stories. Doyle felt Sherlock Holmes was complete in 26 stories which concluded in the Final Problem. Even with a few stories remaining under copyright they do not influence the characters or contain any significant changes to them. The only logical claim the Estate could make is that new characters introduced only within the remaining stories could still be bound by copyright. But Holmes – Watson – Mycroft – Moriarty – Mrs Hudson – Mary Morstan – Lestrade – Gregson – Irene Adler – and may other iconic figures and their personalities are outside of this copyright.

So what do you think? Is the estate correct?

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