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Wooster sues My Man Jeeves

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The estate of author PG Wodehouse, creator of the character Jeeves the gentleman whose lesser-known gentleman employer was Bertie Wooster, is unhappy with the use of the Jeeves' name by Ask Jeeves, an apparently unrelated American imposter who has become frightfully rich. London-based AP Watt, the oldest-established literary agency in the world which also looks after the literary estates of Robert Graves and Somerset Maugham, has "begun legal proceedings against the American company for breach of copyright", according to the Sunday Telegraph. However, that's not what a spokeswoman tells The Register: the parties are just engaged in "amicable discussions" and are confident of a mutually agreeable outcome, she said. This is just as well, as the legal ice looks decidedly thin. Wodehouse died in 1975, so his work has copyright protection until 2045, but there is no copyright in ideas or names. Trademarks would give some protection, but only an illustration could be trademarked, as there is no US or British trademark protection for the names of characters. Since the Wodehouse estate appears to have no registered trademarks, imposters like Jeeves the London drycleaner and Ask Jeeves the search engine and a host of other imitators can probably co-exist legally. The secretive Wodehouse trust is keeping tight-lipped, but the odds must be that it hopes to get a settlement lest Jeeves has to remove his gloves and seek satisfaction. The odds of a passing-off action for an unregistered trademark must be pretty minimal. However, Ask Jeeves needs to be aware that in 1919, in My Man Jeeves, Wodehouse wrote about "excellent browsing" so there may be some hitherto precedents that Ask Jeeves needs to consider. ®

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