The case of Dr. Watson’s secret wife
American court confirmed that Sherlock Holmes’s companion had two wives.
The copyright for Sherlock Holmes’s and Dr. Watson’s characters has often been at the centre of legal disputes, in particular in the past decades. This is largely due not only to the unwaning popularity of the mysterious detective and his friend, but also to the series of adaptations of the books about the legendary detective into films. Each of them was based on an agreement of the producer with the rightsholder, when it was not, a dispute on the copyright violation arose.
At present, most lawyers agree that in Russia, the European Union, and a number of Asian countries, all books on Sherlock Holmes have already passed into the public domain and can be used by anyone without restrictions.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930. By consequence, according to most legislations, his copyright expired 70 years after his death, that is, in 2000. Moreover, in some states where the original posthumous copyright protection lasted less than 70 years and was later prolonged by a sequence of laws, the copyright for Sherlock Holmes had actually expired a little earlier.
However, in other countries, such as the US, the copyright for part of books about Sherlock Holmes is still valid. This limits the free use of the characters of the detective and his colleague in other books, films, plays, and computer games.
The key decision related to the status of copyright for Sherlock Holmes in the US is the Illinois district court ruling dated 23 December 2013, in the case Klinger vs Conan Doyle Estate, ltd., further confirmed by the ruling of the court of appeal in 2014. The claim was filed by an American literary critic protesting against publishing houses which published his anthology of works on Sherlock Holmes being requested to conclude a license agreement for the use of the characters of Holmes and Watson with the company managing the copyright for Conan Doyle’s oeuvre.
According to the US Copyright Act, all works published in the US before 1923 are not currently protected by copyright. Works published after 1923 will be still under protection for a number of years (but no longer than 95 years after their publication).
The series of stories about Sherlock Holmes was published from 1887 on and completed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle during his life. The last collection of stories appeared in 1927, three years before the writer’s death.
The main issue raised in the US copyright lawsuit is that of the possibility for third persons to use the characters of Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson, as well as the images of other characters of the detective stories without the consent of the rightsholders.
The rightsholders insisted that each story should be considered in relation to the other. They claimed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle developed unique images of his characters throughout his career. These images would change and be completed with the addition of new details, events and adventures. Thus, Sherlock Holmes as a literary character cannot be split into two by the year 1923 (the US limit for considering the works as belonging to the public domain).
The detective is a unique character whose image evolves and is enriched within the entire series of stories; as part of stories published after 1923 are still protected by copyright, then no free use of the characters of Holmes and Watson without the consent of the rightsholder should be allowed.
The plaintiff insisted, on the contrary, that Sherlock Holmes and everything related to the series had long “become the property of the public”, therefore, there should be no copyright limit on the use of the characters.
The court’s ruling in the case specifies that all the elements contained in Conan Doyle’s stories published before 1923 have passed into the public domain and are no more protected by copyright. In particular, the characters of Holmes and Watson are no more subject to copyright, but only the elements of the characters based on the stories published before 1923.
The court mentioned explicitly that all story elements and events from the lives of the characters contained in the stories published after 1923 are still under the protection of copyright.
In particular, the court stated clearly that copyright protects such story elements as:
· Dr. Watson’s having a second wife,
· the description of the sports achievements of Dr. Watson in his youth,
· the circumstances related to Sherlock Holmes’s leaving the detective agency.
As the result of the ruling, in the US anyone can use the characters of Holmes and Watson in certain limits, that is, without reference to the story elements introduced in the later publications. This means that anyone can write about the detective and the doctor, their friendship, their investigation of the Baskervilles case, their fight with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and their search for the Agra treasure, but nobody can mention, without the consent of the rightsholders, those details of the characters’ biographies that are part of the last stories of the series or mention any new characters described there.
The issue of Dr. Watson’s second wife is of particular interest, as she was introduced in the later stories and cannot, according to the court, be freely mentioned in films or books in the US.
In fact, the doctor’s second spouse, who cannot be present in films and derived works on the adventures of the detective due to copyright restrictions, will remain mostly unknown to the public till the copyright expires.
This conclusion, stated explicitly in the court ruling, is also interesting for the fact that the stories published after 1923 contain few mentions of Dr. Watson’s second wife.
Literary critics and the court point out that she makes as few as two appearances in the last Sherlock Holmes cycle.
Thus, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier alludes to the doctor’s wife by just one phrase:
“I find from my notebook that it was in January 1903, just after the conclusion of the Boer War, that I had my visit from Mr James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton. The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone.”
Fragment from A. Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
Literary researchers studying the series about the detective point out that the doctor’s first wife, Miss Mary Morstan (Mrs Watson) had left the doctor by The Adventure of the Empty House, which refers to the beginning of the 1890s. Moreover, unlike the script writers of Sherlock series, literary critics cannot conclude from the texts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that Dr. Watson’s first wife died. They assume that either the Watsons divorced, or Mary Watson was arrested. The detailed analysis of the circumstances of the separation of Dr. Watson and Miss Mary Morstan can be found here.
Taking into account that the events in the last stories take place a decade after those of The Adventure of the Empty House, critics suppose that in 1903 (according to The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier) Dr. Watson was married for the second time.
Another story of the series to mention (as the court specifies) for the first time the second wife of Dr. Watson is The Adventure of the Illustrious Client. Interestingly enough, the story does not exactly state that the woman that Dr. Watson spends time with and cares for is his wife, nor does it hint at any relationship or feelings between the two characters.
From this point of view, the court ruling is unique not only because it determined the limits of legal use of Holmes and Watson characters without the consent of the rightsholder.
The court also established the particulars of Dr. Watson’s personal life, by unveiling the nature of the relationship between the two characters and suggesting to the reader that Miss Kitty Winter was the new wife of Dr. Watson.
Apparently, we will have to wait for the copyright to expire to get to the details of how Dr. Watson and Miss Winter met and how their relationship evolved. This romantic story will surely become a hit for film studios and new detective writers walking in the steps of the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Author: Igor Nevzorov, Translation: Ekaterina Bereznikova