UPDATE, Saturday, Dec. 1: This story has a happy ending. Yingling's wonderful search engine isn't going anywhere, says Gene Willis of Universal Uclick, Calvin and Hobbes publisher Andrews McMeel's digital division. Willis emailed me to highlight a post on GoComics' blog written in response to my article. Here's an excerpt:
Assembling the Cavin data base was no small feat, and we salute the innovation and time it took to make such a thing possible. I also appreciated the direct links back to GoComics. Having an official, central spot for our cartoonists to display their work allows them to control how they want it to look, make sure their content is posted in the right order, and share with readers any new books, tours or activities they may be taking part in.
Willis added that he had personally contacted Yingling to offer a GoComics premium membership in appreciation of the search engine.
Yingling, for his part, seems thrilled. As wary as he was about the press coverage initially, he emailed me to thank me for the article and added that he was "glad I can now promote the site to spread the love for Watterson's work, rather than nervously hide it."
It's a magical world indeed when common sense and good will prevail.
Original Post: As wonderful and hilarious as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strips can be, there are few things more frustrating than listening to someone try to describe one from memory without recourse to the strip itself. Although on second thought, perhaps that can be amusing, in the sort of way that Hobbes finds it amusing when Calvin keeps trying to tell him he has the hiccups, but he can’t because… never mind. You get the point.
All of which is to say that I was overjoyed this afternoon to discover via Twitter the Calvin and Hobbes search engine. Click through, type in “hiccups,” and up pops a link to the exact strip I was trying to remember.
A glance at the homepage might lead you to believe this wonderful invention is powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine. But it turns out “Bing” is actually just the childhood nickname of the guy who built it, a software engineer and freelance Web developer named Michael Yingling. And as you play with the search engine a bit, it becomes clear it’s a fairly homespun project. You have to match an exact word or phrase from either the strip or a brief summary of the strip in order to turn up the results you’re looking for. For true Calvin and Hobbes nerds, however, that usually isn’t too much of a problem. Most of us have the strips at least partly memorized.
I talked to Yingling this afternoon to find out how he did it. The first thing I learned, though, was that he’s feeling a little wary of the renewed attention. He built the site in February of 2010, and it first went viral in August of that year, appearing on sites like Reddit and Neatorama. Shortly afterward, Calvin and Hobbes publisher Andrews McMeel came calling to enforce its intellectual property rights. Yingling wasn’t hosting any copyrighted material, but he was hotlinking to the strips so that they showed up on his site, and he had a couple of images from it on his search engine’s homepage. He told me Thursday that he quickly removed the images and stopped hotlinking. Instead his search engine began linking out to the strips legally hosted on Andrews McMeel’s own legal online distribution portal, GoComics.com.
That ought to be enough to mollify the publisher—after all, the search engine now serves exclusively to drive traffic to its own site—but you never know. Yingling says he fears a fresh wave of press will bring with it a cease-and-desist order, which he lacks the time or inclination to fight in court. “To be honest, I’d prefer 20 people a day be able to use it” to having thousands see it but then face a copyright infringement claim. But he says he’s resigned to that possibility, especially since the popular tech blog Gizmodo already linked to it earlier today. He also notes that there’s a chance a spike in traffic will overload the server.
Still, he’s proud of the project, though he deflects a lot of the credit—both to Watterson and to a man named S Anand who lives in Bangalore. Why S Anand? He’s the one who spent the countless hours required to transcribe each of Watterson’s thousands of strips to create a searchable text database. S Anand originally used it to create his own Calvin and Hobbes search engine, which was taken down in May 2010, not long after Yingling’s went up. S Anand told the whole story in a blog post shortly thereafter.
So here’s hoping Andews McMeel shows mercy to its own biggest fans—no doubt many of the people using Yingling’s site already own every single Calvin and Hobbes book there is to buy—and lets the search engine stand. I’d like to think that even Watterson himself, who has famously strong views on creative control and artistic integrity, would appreciate the project if he knew about it. Surely he’d recognize that what Yingling is doing is different from what Calvin does in that strip where he signs his name in the snow and… oh, just read it.