Sherlock Holmes, the fictional iconic Victorian investigator who has inspired everyone from Batman to House, M.D., has recently entered the public domain in the United States, according to a filing released on December 23, 2013. This includes Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, and other elements in the 50 Holmes works published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before January 1, 1923. With the license free and clear for U.S. role-playing game publishers, will we see a wave of Holmes-themed games in the near future?
Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times explains:
The ruling came in response to a civil complaint filed in February by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and a number of other Holmes-related books. The complaint stemmed from “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of new Holmes stories written by different authors and edited by Mr. Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife. Mr. Klinger and Ms. King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection. But in the complaint, Mr. Klinger said that the publisher of “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” Pegasus Books, had declined to go forward after receiving a letter from the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., a business entity organized in Britain, suggesting that the estate would prevent the new book from being sold by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and “similar retailers” unless it received another fee.
Sherlock Holmes is a hot property these days, thanks to the recent film franchise and two television series, “Elementary” and “Sherlock.” With the popularity of steampunk-era gaming, Sherlock has been a curious exclusion up to this point, presumably because publishers were wary of attempting to publish a game centered on the character without paying a fee to the Conan Doyle Estate. Role-playing games of recent note that center on Holmes include Hamster Press Games’ Sherlock Holmes: The Fenian Murders ($25.00) and an announced but never released Baker Street RPG from Fearlight Games that was to be Kickstarter-funded in 2013:
Fearlight Games has officially licensed the property from the Conan Doyle Estate. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to have this amazing opportunity.” said Kirby Young, owner of Fearlight Games. It will feature a brand new rules mechanic that has Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and the evil Professor Moriarty affecting your die rolls as you take up cases out of 221B. Featuring over 30 careers, 25 unique criminal extras, and rules for making your own nefarious villains, Baker Street will also feature a robust investigation mechanic, and easy character generation.
For other role-playing games set in and around Doyle’s character see DriveThruRPG. The last time there was a controversy over an iconic character’s status in the public domain in a role-playing game, it was someone a bit larger: King Kong. Louis Porter Jr. released King of All Pulp Monsters:
“When doing research on this project, it shocked me to find out that King Kong was actually in the public domain. I was amazed to learn with the lawsuit of Universal City Studios, Inc. v. RKO General Inc., et al., Universal had proven the King Kong’s plot and characters were in the public domain. Then years later in Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., Universal tried and lost its case to sue Nintendo for it use of Donkey Kong stating they Donkey Kong was a trademark violation of King Kong, the plot and characters of which Universal claimed for their own.” comment Louis Porter Jr., president of Louis Porter Jr. Design. “It is no surprise that Universal lost this case and had to pay Nintendo 1.8 million dollars for damages. It is an amazing piece of pulp and legal history that had me surprised when I was researching King Kong. I am amazed how many fans and publishers of Pulp era material that did not know these legal battles about Kong. In their online article, The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming, gamespy.com listed this event, which they called Universal Goes Ape, as #20. And with that information, this project was born for Louis Porter Jr. Design.”
We’ll see if any publishers decide to take a similar leap with Holmes. If Fearlight Games’ delay is any indication, it might be some time before we see any official Sherlock Holmes role-playing games.
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