Devotees of Sherlock Holmes are a famously obsessive bunch, and in the 126 years since Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his coolheaded detective they have certainly had plenty of real-world intrigues to ponder alongside fictional ones like “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”
There have been fierce battles over control of Conan Doyle’s estate and the preservation of his former home in Surrey, England — to say nothing of the wild speculations surrounding the mysterious 2004 death of a prominent Holmes scholar who was found garroted with a shoelace shortly before a controversial auction of Conan Doyle papers.
But when the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only literary club, gathered for their annual weekend in New York in January, few had any inkling they would soon be embroiled in a distinctly 21st-century case that might be called “The Adventure of the Social Media-Driven Copyright Debate, With Annotations on Sherlockian Sexism and the True Nature of Literary Devotion.”
A few weeks later, after a leading Holmes scholar and longtime Irregular filed a legal complaint against the Conan Doyle estate arguing that Sherlock Holmes and the basic elements of his world were in the public domain, various online Sherlockian conclaves exploded.
“The suit has wreaked havoc,” said Betsy Rosenblatt, an assistant professor at Whittier Law School and a member of the Irregulars, who pointed to the spread of a “#freesherlock” hashtag on Twitter.
The suit, which stems from the estate’s efforts to collect a licensing fee for a planned collection of new Holmes-related stories by Sara Paretsky, Michael Connelly and other contemporary writers, makes a seemingly simple argument. Of the 60 Conan Doyle stories and novels in “the Canon” (as Sherlockians call it), only the 10 stories first published in the United States after 1923 remain under copyright. Therefore, the suit asserts, many fees paid to the estate for the use of the character have been unnecessary.
But it’s also shaping up to be something of what one blogger called “a Sherlockian Civil War.” On one side is Leslie S. Klinger, a prominent lawyer from Malibu, Calif., and the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” as well as an editor of the new collection. On the other is Jon Lellenberg, a retired Defense Department strategist and, for the past 30 years, the Conan Doyle estate’s hard-nosed American agent.
If neither side is ready to cast the other in the role of Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s arch-nemesis, the tide of sympathy among Sherlockians is running strongly in Mr. Klinger’s favor.
RTFA. Like any successful detective story the evidence trail may lead your opinion in many more than one direction.
I admit to being sufficiently devoted to the point that my best and favorite holiday, bicycle-camping from Connecticut to the Canadian border in New Hampshire, crossing the autumn color-change, included only a paperback collection of Sherlock Holmes for reading matter. The modern world could have vanished during that journay and I might not have noticed.