This is the second installment of Tim Wu’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
11:00 A.M., Amtrak, Washington, D.C. → New York City
Taking a break, I read P. G. Wodehouse, whose work I would call a guilty pleasure if I actually felt any guilt about it. Today, I read what must be one of his most brilliant stories, “The Story of Webster.” It is about a young Bohemian named Lancelot whose uncle, a disapproving Vicar, makes him take care of his cat while he is on missionary duty in Bongo Bongo.
The cat, it turns out is something of a proxy for the Vicar’s disapproval. “His eyes were clear and steady, and seemed to pierce to the very roots of the young man’s soul, filling him with a sense of guilt.” Lancelot cannot seem to ignore the pressure. Soon he has begun to shave daily, clean his apartment, and under the cat’s influence even ditches his fun-loving poetess girlfriend for a Miss Carberry-Pirbright, “a young woman of prim and glacial aspect.” All seems lost, until at the end the hero solves the problem in a way I won’t spoil.
2:50 P.M., Room 104, Jerome Green Hall, Columbia University
My copyright class today is about cultural appropriation, or more precisely, what a secondary author can and cannot do without the first author’s permission. We talk about the case of the Harry Potter Lexicon—a detailed encyclopedia of all things Potter, which J. K. Rowling declared an infringement of her authorial rights.
This year’s copyright class is a good crowd. I banned laptops, and class speaking is done standing so it has a performative aspect that adds intensity. It also doesn’t hurt that the underlying topic—authorship—is just interesting.
How authors react to works based on their work is unpredictable. Some authors take the existence of any secondary works as a sign of success. Others are hurt, even if the work is flattering. I tell the class about the day I watched Ms. Rowling on the witness stand, crying and saying that her life had lost meaning thanks to that nasty Lexicon.