Sherlock Holmes will effectively enter the public domain in 2023.
When copyrights expire, it puts content into the public domain, meaning it can be used without the permission of the original author. The Verge reports that among the intellectual properties whose copyrights are set to expire in 2023 is the world-famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. As of the start of 2023, the character will no longer be affected by copyright and will enter the public domain.
Sherlock Holmes joins a variety of other notable characters in literature that are public domain, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and King Arthur. What this means is that anyone who wants to write stories about Sherlock Holmes can publish, distribute, and profit from them without a license from the former copyright holder. In the case of the 221B Baker Street detective, that means the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate can no longer stop the production of media relating to the character.
Some of the stories about Sherlock Holmes had already entered the public domain in 2019, but since the Doyle Estate still owned the rights to the character, they argued in court that this portion of the works should not affect their copyright claim. Netflix was embroiled in this entanglement with the making of Enola Holmes, causing them to settle with the Doyle Estate for use of the character. However, with the copyright expiring with the turn of the new year, content like Enola Holmes or Netflix’s short-lived series The Irregulars can see the light of day without consideration for the Doyle Estate.
Other characters whose copyrights expired before Sherlock Holmes have seen an explosion in content surrounding them. Both Moby Dick and Dracula have seen creative works based on their world, including movies that explore the settings from other characters’ points of view, like the upcoming Nicolas Cage movie Renfield. Jane Austen’s novels left the public domain and were re-invented as Clueless and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.
Sherlock Holmes is not the only major property to enter the public domain in 2023. The first talkie feature film, The Jazz Singer, as well as the epic science fiction movie Metropolis, will also be exceeding copyright this weekend, along with the Virginia Woolf novel To the Lighthouse. This will not only allow creators some license to use the properties in new ways but also helps those wishing to preserve these works by protecting them from copyright infringement.
A long public domain freeze recently ended in 2019, partly brought about to protect the copyright of a character as famous as Sherlock Holmes. Mickey Mouse is finally entering the public domain on January 1, 2024, after a long period, including the freeze, during which Disney fought to retain its iconic character’s copyright. The freeze began with controversy over a bill passed in 1998 that extended the copyright of Steamboat Willie for another 20 years the same year it was set to expire.
With so many recent Sherlock Holmes projects being developed, his entry into the public domain means we will see new stories beyond the familiar ones we know. In the last decade, we’ve seen Jonny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Henry Lloyd-Hughes, and Henry Cavill take on the role in new capacities that include steampunk, magic, and a precocious sister. Now that creators can take liberties with Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot for what we might see next.