Comments from a post at Techdirt here raise an issue that I think is on the minds of some. Since P&T are famous for exposure (revealing the secrets of a number of illusions), why is Teller suing? Isn't he being a little, ahem, hypocritical? One could take that position, I suppose, and one could argue (as I have in the past) that knowing how a trick or illusion is done doesn't diminish the entertainment value in watching the magician perform the trick. If I know how the "sawing a woman in half" illusion can be done, the way Criss Angel performs his version is still mystifying. I'm not sure how he does his version. Teller is, after all, a wonderful artist, and arguably he performs his illusion better than anyone else. One goes to a P&T show to see P&T's artistry. Does it matter if Mr. Dogge reveals how Teller's illusion might be done by creating a version of the "Shadows" illusion that seems very similar and tells me (for $3000) how to do it? Would I enjoy Teller's version less?
Probably not, but I would raise two points. First, I don't think P&T have ever exposed the secret to a trick that wasn't already generally available to the profession and the public. P&T also (I think) make clear that the explanation to the trick is one explanation of the trick. Nor, as far as I know, have they exposed a trick owned by someone else. I could be wrong, and if so, I would appreciate someone giving me evidence (not just assertions) to the contrary. Second, and this point is related to the first point, Teller took pains to try to protect his illusion. He created it, he hasn't shared it with the rest of the profession, or even with a select few (except perhaps his partner and his crew). He has the right to monetize, perform it, or bury it in a box, and refuse to perform it.
Says the Techdirt poster:
This is disappointing in a number of different ways. Years ago, we wrote about an academic paper that looked at how the magic community policed itself without having to resort to the blunt instrument of intellectual property lawsuits. As Tim Lee noted at the time:
Instead, the magic community uses social norms to reward those who discover new magictricks and punishes those who disclose them to non-magicians. Because magicians rely so much on their professional network of other magicians to learn about new tricks, new equipment, and new performance opportunities, maintaining a good reputation within the magic community is essential to the career of a successful magician. A magician who uses another magician's trick without giving the originator proper credit, or who reveals secrets to non-magicians, is shunned by other magicians. That kind of ostracism can be a much better (not to mention cheaper) way of disciplining wayward members than getting the lawyers involved.
Unfortunately, it looks like Teller has decided to go much further than that. While it is true that he registered a copyright on the trick, illustrated with the following amusing illustration, it's pretty ridiculous for a magician to claim "ownership" of a trick...
The paper the poster is referring to is one by Jacob Loshin, and what Loshin is suggesting is that magicians can, should, and do police themselves. It's a good paper and an interesting idea, and it's reprinted in the Law and Magic collection I mention in a previous post. I don't think Loshin would suggest, however, that magicians should never go to the law to protect their rights if the law works more effectively to protect them than social norms. Teller is claiming copyright in the choreography of the performance. I don't understand why it's "pretty ridiculous," any more than it would be "pretty ridiculous" to claim copyright in choreography of a ballet or other routine. Congress has recognized this claim may be asserted under the Act; why should artists not take advantage of it?
I understand the Techdirt poster's points; I think they derive from a different conception of what "ownership" means in terms of intellectual property, whether it is possible or desireable, and what the limits on individual rights in IP ought to be. It's a debate that is ongoing in IP law, and has been heating up over the past few years. The debate will continue because it goes to the heart of the dispute not just over ownership of intellectual property but of information. In our technology-dominated age, that's a Big Deal.