Ken Jennings


June 20, 2006

If you’re of a certain age, and reading a blog like this one, you probably, at one point, had a bookshelf lined with cheap trivia paperbacks. I sure did, right around the time Trivial Pursuit hit, in 1984. Most of my books were quickie tie-ins to the trivia boom, designed to satisfy the cravings of Trivial Pursuit nuts who had already gone through all the cards twice. But others were obviously aimed at a different group, the coveted fans-of-something-else demographic. The Jedi Master’s Quizbook. The Ultimate Yankee Baseball Quiz Book. M*A*S*H Trivia. 1983’s The Matt Dillon Quiz Book (!)…Rumble Fish, not Gunsmoke.

Some of these were licensed properties, I could tell. They would often have the word “Official” in the title, and better photos. But lots of them were clearly home-cooked, unlicensed, written by fans, and for fans. These weren’t cheap, fly-by-night offerings from minor publishers, either. Warner printed Beatles and M*A*S*H quizbooks, without (as far as I can tell) anyone from the Fab Four or the 4077th seeing a penny. The Star Trek and Tolkien quiz books that Bart Andrews did for Signet in the 1970s (and which I remember my parents owning) showed no sign of being licensed.

This never struck me as odd. You don’t have to own the copyright to M*A*S*H to ask trivia questions about it, do you? I didn’t know what “fair use” was when I was eight, but I do now, and this doesn’t seem beyond the pale. Star Trek and M*A*S*H facts and plot points are out there, now, floating in the cultural ether. Somebody may have made up dilithium crystals and Donald Penobscot at one point, but they can’t still own every trivia question that gets asked about them, right?

Or can they?

seinfeld.jpgIn 1998, the Carol Publishing Group released Beth B. Golub’s unofficial Seinfeld trivia book, The Seinfeld Aptitude Test, in the well-trodden path of other unofficial TV quiz tie-ins. The book contained 643 questions (multiple-choice, matching, and simple question-and-answer) on the famous minutiae of the first five seasons of the top-rated sitcom. “To impress a woman, George passes himself off as (a) a gynecologist, (b) a geologist, (c) a marine biologist, (d) a meterologist.” “What is Kramer’s first name?” (Answer: “Unknown.” Remember, this was after only the fifth season.) “What candy does Kramer snack on while observing a surgical procedure from an operating room balcony?” Yada yada yada. A prominent disclaimer on the back cover reminded readers that the book was an unofficial tie-in to the show.

But Seinfeld, at the time, was being very picky about licensing and merchandising, and aggressive about unlicensed free-riders. Only one licensed Seinfeld book had been released, and that was a special Seinfeld issue that Entertainment Weeklyhad planned on releasing as an “unofficial companion” until Castle Rock threatened litigation.

Whether you agree or not with the outcome of the case, you have to feel bad for Golub and her publisher.  They were publishing in a well-established genre.  Seinfeld executive producer George Shapiro had called their quiz “a fun little book.” NBC had even given away copies of the book as promotional items to advertise the show’s new season. And then Castle Rock sued.

(That’s probably long enough for one entry. “In a moment, the results of that trial.”)

Posted by Ken at 1:31 pm