Correct us if we are wrong, but we seem to have detected a certain half-veiled annoyance recently on the part of a British literary agency named A.P. Watt. The trouble is, these Watt chaps’ duties include looking after the estate of the late, great comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of the supposedly inimitable butler Jeeves. Those duties are now being complicated by an enterprising U.S. company that since 1996 has made bags of money simply by styling itself “Ask Jeeves” and going into business as “the world’s first Internet butler” — apparently without remembering to “ask Watt” first. Dashed impertinent, really.
The cyber-Jeeves is actually very helpful. What it does is answer “natural-language” questions — i.e., questions in plain English as opposed to the torturous “Boolean” that other search engines demand — or at least “points the user to relevant Internet destinations that provide the answers.” The book-Jeeves himself could hardly be more obliging. Potter off to www.askjeeves.com or www.ask.com with any query, no matter how frivolous (“Where can I find pictures of Bruce Willis?” someone was asking last week), and the site with the smiling-butler logo will pop you on the path to an answer.
Well, most of the time it will. With a bland imperturbability that would do the original Jeeves proud, it deflects the query “What do you know about A.P. Watt?” with: “I’m not sure I understood your question correctly. Would you like me to check your spelling?” And if you ask it about Wodehouse, you are suavely directed to reference works; the name is conspicuously absent from the site’s own home page. Another visitor this week was more subtle, tossing this innocent hand grenade: “Where can I find a concise encyclopedia article about copyright?”
Ah yes, copyright. It turns out that the Wodehouse estate, which holds the copyright on the author’s 100 or so novels until 2045, thinks some bounds have been overstepped. Not only that, it clearly regards the pin-striped search engine as little short of a blister on the entire global community. One man’s blister is another man’s bubble, of course — this one is now worth some $2.6 billion. But, blister or bubble, the estate intends to pop it, and with luck get a little bit richer in the popping. A.P. Watt is reportedly “engaged in amicable discussions” with the upstart Californian startup, turning on the interesting legal question of whether literary copyright refers merely to words on paper or extends to a character or idea. We shall see. No use trying to peep ahead into Volume Two. Wodehouse, however, would certainly have relished the range of connotation here of the word “amicable.”
Now these clashings of human temperament are undoubtedly very lamentable. They disturb one’s after-luncheon repose. On the other hand, they can be highly diverting on a dull day and sometimes even shed a little light.
What light has this one shed? Neutral observers have enjoyed its neat symbolism, the way it appears to pit old against new, the book age against the computer age, the rapacious anarchy of dot-com capitalism against the civilizing restraints of the law, even England against America. Others — Wodehouse purists especially — have taken it as a sign of things going even faster to the dogs than they had feared. To them, the unremunerated and unacknowledged appropriation of Jeeves ushers in a nightmare: Wodehouse’s richly peopled and hilarious world shrunk to a search engine adorned with a smirking logo.
We think they have a point, but that there is nothing inevitable or doom-laden about it. A.P. Watt, as it undoubtedly realizes, has a chance to reverse the trend and make quite a nice pile for Wodehouse’s descendants at the same time. The trick is not to strip Ask Jeeves, Inc. of its catchy persona, but simply to compel it to acknowledge its source — right there on its home page, preferably with links to a decent online bookstore. That way, a whole new generation of users who otherwise would never know where Jeeves came from will be handed the key to a magical, sanity-restoring realm. Culture is not at stake here, just a cache of pure amusement it would be a crime to lose.
Meanwhile, it is not hard to find out what stand the cagey Wodehouse would have taken with regard to the current legal unpleasantness. We close with the following pregnant snatch of dialogue from “Leave it to Psmith” (1924), a passage Ask Jeeves, Inc. might have done well to ponder long ere this:
” ‘I sometimes think, Miss Peavey, that flowers must be the souls of little children who have died in their innocence.’
” ‘What a beautiful thought, Mr. McTodd!’ exclaimed Miss Peavey rapturously.
” ‘Yes,’ agreed Psmith. ‘Don’t pinch it. It’s copyright.’ “
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