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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.

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I guess the law is not the same for every country but take a look in WHEN U.S. WORKS PASS INTO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN. – Psicofrenia Aug 21 '13 at 8:12
So far as I know, the Holmes stories are in the public domain. When ACDoyle himself was asked by a contemporary if she could write a play in which Holmes marries, he famously responded, "You may marry him or murder him or do as you like with him." – Lauren Ipsum Aug 21 '13 at 9:59
The situation is unclear. See: Who owns Sherlock Holmes? – Neil Fein Aug 21 '13 at 10:42
If you want to be reasonably certain, you should consult with a lawyer specializing in copyright law. – Michael Kjörling Aug 21 '13 at 12:59
I rolled back the most recent edit removing the mystery tag; the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes is an important issue in both copyright law and the mystery genre. – Neil Fein May 16 at 18:36
up vote 9 down vote accepted

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

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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 at 4:43

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