Intellectual Property Among Magicians

In my Q&A

with Susan Scafidi, I asked about Jim Surowiecki’s assertion that the world

of magic tricks manages to be innovative despite a lack of copyright protection.

Susan replied that there might be no copyright protection, but that didn’t mean

that magic tricks didn’t have their own, idiosyncratic, protection mechanisms:

Since my father is a serious amateur magician (and I confess to having performed

a bit myself years ago), magic tricks are my favorite inapposite example.

Not only is the literature copyrighted, but many effects are deliberately

kept secret by magicians, and unlike fashion can’t be torn apart at the seams

by interlopers. Penn & Teller’s antics aside, there’s a guild –

and it takes some effort to reach the inner circle.

Now, Alea has found

a wonderful

paper by Jacob Loshin which explains in fascinating detail how magic tricks

are protected in practice. Here’s a taster:

“Popular magic” remains easy to find. Anyone can go to the library

to learn it or walk into the local magic shop to purchase it. This gives the

false impression that the magic community does a poor job of controlling access

to its secrets. In fact, however, the easy availability of “popular

magic” brilliantly achieves what magicians call “misdirection.”

“Popular magic” serves to satisfy those in search of the cheap

secret. And “popular magic” gives them just that—cheap secrets.

These secrets are harmless in the hands of the general public, since they

tend not to compromise the more valuable secrets that magicians aim to preserve.

And here’s an excellent example of the magicians’ enforcement mechanism, from

a magician named Walter Zaney Blaney:

[A] company in England, Illusions Plus, was selling still another rip-off

of my illusion. When I protested to the owner, James Antony, he told me there

was no court in the world which could stop him from what he was doing. I explained

I had no intention of going to court. I instead simply told my many friends

in [London’s] Magic Circle about it…

When the word spread, soon Mr. Antony ‘had a problem.’ As things

turned out, there was indeed a court which promptly put him out of business…

the bankruptcy court.

Go read the whole thing: I promise no magic-trick secrets are revealed!

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