I have been listening to all of Sherlock Holmes read aloud* this week. For the entirety of A Study in Scarlet, he looked like Benedict Cumberbatch in my head.
For all of The Sign of the Four:
But for the third book? The Hound of the Baskervilles? In my mind’s eye, the great detective looked like:
In downloading the free audiobooks of (nearly) all of the Sherlock Holmes stories from Librivox, a repository of public domain recordings of public domain works, I discovered an interesting example of the flaws in our copyright system.
The last book of collected Sherlock Holmes stories was published in 1927, which is after 1923. This tautology is important because in the United States, works published before 1923 are in the public domain, while works published after it often are confined by copyright. I am not the first to notice this problem. Because major media companies are risk-averse to a fault and care little for the pernicious effect their behavior has on less wealthy creators, every single one of the Sherlock derivatives which I have enjoyed this decade paid the Conan Doyle estate for the privilege. By doing so, they empower the estate to seek rent from academics, authors or fans seeking to create derivative works.
The estate argues that Sherlock was not a finished character until the last word of the last short story had been published. When and whether characters are protected by copyright, as opposed to the works which contain them, is in contention. The running guess from Peter Hirtle of Cornell University is that the aspects of Sherlock (and Watson and Mary Morstan and Moriaty and Toby the hound) that Conan Doyle included in his pre-1923 works are in the public domain while any characters or traits which appeared after 1923 are restrained by copyright.
This matters not only because this restriction means there are no free .epub files of that work, no recordings done in people’s living rooms and offices, and less discussion and enjoyment of the work, but also because Sherlock fans were some of the first fans who organized in ways modern fandoms would recognize. They wrote non-fiction fan mail, wrote fanfiction using the characters long before they entered the public domain, and played a role in getting the great detective raised from the dead.
Not to mention, they are great stories.
All of Holmes’ life enters the public domain, I will content myself with enjoying those stories which lie within it. If you’d like to join me, I’ve put all of the public domain audio files as well as the e-reader file all into one downloadable zip.
I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.
“My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”
I gripped him by the arms.
“Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”
“Wait a moment,” said he. “Are you sure that you are really fit to discuss things? I have given you a serious shock by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.”
“I am all right, but indeed, Holmes, I can hardly believe my eyes. Good heavens! to think that you—you of all men—should be standing in my study.” Again I gripped him by the sleeve, and felt the thin, sinewy arm beneath it.
“Well, you’re not a spirit anyhow,” said I. “My dear chap, I’m overjoyed to see you. Sit down, and tell me how you came alive out of that dreadful chasm.”
He sat opposite to me, and lit a cigarette in his old, nonchalant manner. He was dressed in the seedy frockcoat of the book merchant, but the rest of that individual lay in a pile of white hair and old books upon the table. Holmes looked even thinner and keener than of old, but there was a dead-white tinge in his aquiline face which told me that his life recently had not been a healthy one.
“I am glad to stretch myself, Watson,” said he. “It is no joke when a tall man has to take a foot off his stature for several hours on end. Now, my dear fellow, in the matter of these explanations, we have, if I may ask for your cooperation, a hard and dangerous night’s work in front of us. Perhaps it would be better if I gave you an account of the whole situation when that work is finished.”
“I am full of curiosity. I should much prefer to hear now.”
“You’ll come with me to-night?”
“When you like and where you like.”