Guest Essay: Rip-Off or Research?

Inside Magic Image of Favorite Melvin the MagicianEditor: Mark Panner is filling in for us whilst we work our day job during this busy season.  His essays are not edited or approved by Inside Magic.  In fact, we usually disagree with everything he says and does.

Some call it deliberate theft, others call it inspiration. I call it inspiration because I don’t like all of the negatives that come with the word “theft.”

But I also call it pure gold.

I am talking about using great ideas from other fields to make great hordes of cash in the magic field.

Let’s face it, magicians don’t get paid what they deserve. Some practice hours and hours to perform a trick that takes 30 seconds. If you get paid by the hour, that means all of the practice gets you some money but not much money. We won’t go into the complex math here (but we could if we had to) but say you get $15.00 an hour and you do a trick that takes 30 seconds to do. That means you are only getting a part of the $15.00; like a dollar or something. This is a magic blog not an accounting blog so you can figure it out for yourself later. Take my word for it, though: you are not getting the full $15.00 for all of the work that you put into learning the trick, buying the props or making them after watching how the trick is done thanks to YouTube.

So how do magicians make the money they deserve?

First, don’t buy tricks. As I said, you can learn just about any trick out there on YouTube. Thanks to people looking to make a name for themselves, there are plenty of videos where people expose really good trick and even show you how the props they bought work. It cost them something to buy the original trick but if they are stupid enough to show the world how to make it, that works out fine for the rest of us.

Everybody knows magic tricks cost a lot because of the secret, not the props. So, if you can learn the secret from some teenager on YouTube who is showing off how proud he is to have bought the latest miracle, you don’t need to pay a dime.

Wait Mark, isn’t that stealing?

No. Because I didn’t do the stealing. I just watched a video. The guy who did the video showing how a trick worked bought the trick (or learned it from someone who bought it) and so I am pretty far down the line from anything that even looks like stealing.

Wait Mark, isn’t that taking money from inventors of great tricks?

Again, I am not taking anything from anyone. I am just watching a video. It is a free country and I am allowed to watch videos. If someone wants to show me how to make a trick that would cost $45.00 on some over-priced magic web store, who am I to complain.

Wait Mark, won’t that keep magicians from inventing new tricks?

No and so what if they do? It will teach them to price their tricks right. Charging $45.00 for the latest miracle is too much no matter what the trick is – especially if I can make it with stuff I have around the mobile home or in my company’s supply cabinet.

Plus, most of the times once I learn the secret, I don’t want to do the trick any way so there really is no loss. I just saved $45.00 and avoided the hassle of paying and waiting for the delivery and then finding out it is a stupid method and not for me.

I have always said that magic reviews should tell you exactly how a trick is done so that you can determine for yourself whether you want to buy the trick. I bought a trick two years ago at a convention here in Michigan and the guy said it was easy to do and didn’t really require any sleights.

Well, he lied. To do the trick, you had to force a card and last time I checked, that’s a sleight. If I had known that the only way the trick would work was if I forced the card at the beginning, I could have saved $45.00 and bought something from someone more honest.

Don’t get me wrong, I can do a force. In fact, I can do maybe 15 different forces but why should I if I don’t need to? Just to look cool? The guy demonstrated the trick and the way he described it was like this: a person takes a card and the card ends up in some impossible place. Now I know why he was so vague. He was hiding the secret. If I knew the secret before I bought it, I could have saved my money and bought something useful like really cool decks of cards or food.

Wait Mark, shouldn’t we reward people who work hard to invent magic tricks?

We do. We get them press in the magic magazines and they get to travel around the world doing lectures and selling their “secrets” to magic club members. We had a lecturer at our Mystic Hollow Magic Club last month who said he had been in five states in three weeks and lectured five times before coming to Michigan. I know for a fact that the club paid him over $100.00 plus paid for his hotel room at the La Quinta by the airport and some members of the “executive committee” took him to dinner at Denny’s afterwards.

So the inventor gets to put on a show for about three hours, gets paid $100, free room, free dinner plus he gets to sell his special tricks at super-inflated prices. I watched pretty carefully and he sold about $50.00 worth of lecture notes and gimmicks. So, put that all together and he is taking in $150.00 for a three hour show. Math is not my strong part but that is close to $50.00 an hour. Is he a brain surgeon or a lawyer? No, but he is charging those kinds of rates. So who is really “stealing” here?

He would keep touring and visiting magic clubs even if he didn’t sell anything because he is getting a free room and free food plus $100.00 a lecture. Sounds like a sweet gig if you ask me. I do table-hopping at the IHOP (I have a whole bunch of jokes about “hopping at the IHOP” – they are really funny) and have never cleared $100.00 from a weekend of work. It is hard for me to feel sorry for someone who gets to travel, stay in nice places, eats for free (yes, I get free breakfast at IHOP but that is something I just do, they are not “officially” giving it to me).

I am writing a book (my fifth one this year!) about this secret to learning secrets and I will be selling it on Amazon and eBay. And before you get any ideas, don’t even think about trying to rip me off because I am going to get a copyright on it.

My dad used to say, “It’s a dog eat dog world, Mark. Make sure you’re the dog and not the other dog.”

Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld

Inside Magic Image of TellerDo not mess with Teller.

The silent half of Penn & Teller is an amazing writer, fine magic historian and incredible inventor of magic effects.  You put those three talents together and you have someone you do not want on the other side of a lawsuit.

Beginning with the premise that a magic trick is not per se protectable by the Copyright Act, certain aspects of the magical presentation may be.  Most lawyers would attempt to dissuade a client hoping to sue another performer over an alleged copyright infringement.  The burden of proof is tough, the case law does not support that type of claim (in most cases) and because the case will rise or fall based on the facts developed through litigation, it will be expensive to pursue.

U.S. District Judge James Mahan of Nevada agreed that in most cases a magic trick is not subject to copyright protection but, he observed in his ruling on Teller’s behalf, pantomimes are explicitly protected by the Copyright Act.

The effect at the center of the dispute is Teller’s famous and baffling Shadows.  Teller even registered “Shadows” with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1983.

Shadows essentially consists of a spotlight trained on a bud vase containing a rose. The light falls in a such a manner that the shadow of the real rose is projected onto a white screen positioned some distance behind it. Teller then enters the otherwise still scene with a large knife, and proceeds to use the knife to dramatically sever the leaves and petals of the rose’s shadow on the screen slowly, one-by-one, whereupon the corresponding leaves of the real rose sitting in the vase fall to the ground, breaking from the stem at exactly the point where Teller cut the shadow projected on the screen behind it.

Gerard Dogge offered to sell the secret behind Shadows via an advertisement on YouTube for $3,500.00 and included plenty of Penn & Teller keywords to lure the curious to his page.  Mr. Dogge claimed Teller’s copyright is not valid “because (A) it is registered as a dramatic work rather than a magic routine, (B) Teller abandoned his copyright, (C) Teller ‘openly challenged others to copy’ the work, and (D) Teller did not inform the public that Shadows is copyrighted.”

The judge wasn’t buying such foolishness.  The court wrote, “despite Dogge’s numerous attempts to utter an incantation to make the copyright disappear, the court finds that Teller maintains a valid interest as the creator and owner of Shadows.”

And as we wrote, do not mess with Teller.  He hired a private investigator to serve Mr. Dogge personally.  Mr. Dogge tried to hide and allegedly evaded service in Belgium, Spain and other locations on the continent.  Mr. Teller finally convinced the judge that Mr. Dogge had at least opened an email containing the service of process and complaint.  That was sufficient for jurisdiction and Mr. Dogge was forced to answer the complaint.

The best line of the court’s opinion granting Teller summary judgment against Mr. Dogge came near the end:

Dogge contends that the works are not substantially similar because his secret to performing the illusion differs from Teller’s, and because he uses a clear glass bottle instead of a vase in his However the court finds that these reaching arguments by Dogge exceed his limited grasp of copyright law. By arguing that the secret to his illusion is different than Teller’s, Dogge implicitly argues about aspects of the performance that are not perceivable by the audience. In discerning substantial similarity, the court compares only the observable elements of the works in question. Therefore, whether Dogge uses Teller’s method, a technique known only by various holy men of the Himalayas, or even real magic is irrelevant, as the performances appear identical to an ordinary observer.

The judge got it exactly right.

It is rare that being a copyright lawyer / magician gives us a chance to write about a combination of our favorite subjects, but this case did it for us.


Continue reading Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld

Bill Kalush and Conjuring Arts Research Center Featured on Wall Street Journal

Inside Magic Image of Kellar's LevitationMagician, writer, historian and keeper of rare magic secrets Bill Kalush are featured on the Wall Street Journal’s Page One website.

The video piece features Mr. Kalush explaining the mission of the Conjuring Arts Research Center.

He provides an excellent summary of the role of secrecy in magic’s history and its vitality.

Check out the video here.

Visit the Conjuring Arts Research Center here.

Teller Teaches Magic for Science’s Sake

Inside Magic Image of TellerTeller, magician and silent half of the Inside Magic Favorite duo Penn & Teller, offers his thoughts on neuroscience’s interest in what we do for a living.  His article currently appears on Smithsonian.com and is a delight to read.  (We use the word ‘delight’ advisedly – whatever that means). 

Teller takes readers through the seven essential principles of magic to support his thesis that neuroscientists are novices at deception. Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.

Yes, there are some who decry the exposure (sort of) element but even this learned journal of all things magic cannot join in said decrying.  There is no way to describe how magicians manipulate perception without examples.  Teller does not expose more than he needs to illustrate and educate.  Yes, if you are one of the many who regularly perform David Abbott’s Floating Ball routine or the Cockroach Production, some of your audiences may be wise to your shenanigans but that’s probably alright. 

We did a quick comparative analysis of our two databases, Tricks Currently Performed by Magicians (trik_by_trikkrs.dbf) and Tricks Exposed on the Internets (trik_made_nakd.dbf) and found a statistically insignificant intersection of the two populations.  (Interestingly, the “I got your nose” trick is the most exposed in English versions of the Interwebs).  When we compared the results of the first analysis with our database of those who regularly read Smithsonian publications (nerds.dbf), the chance of meaningful exposure is minimal and unlikely to have any lasting effect on the ozone layer as we have come to understand it.

Some would argue our analytical approach to exposure should not be considered in isolation.  It is the principle of the thing, they will mumble while gesturing appropriately.   If we permit Teller to expose magic tricks no one else is doing or would do, we all suffer and magic is made permanently weaker.  As our grandfather, Thomas “Big Tom” Hardy once said, “No man is an island although some are easily compared to peninsulas.  If one suffers from tapeworm, does he not eat more food at the family trough than his brother unless they are Siamese (‘conjoined’) Twins?”  

Perhaps, but that only proves Teller’s thesis.

But magic’s not easy to pick apart with machines, because it’s not really about the mechanics of your senses. Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information.

Should Teller be shunned for not really exposing magic?  Should we really look at the actual impact of his use of arcane and impractical “secrets” to teach?  Or should we just allow our knee-jerk, gut-feeling, envy-based bias to cloud our perception?


Continue reading Teller Teaches Magic for Science’s Sake

Adopt a Houdini Book at British Library

Inside Magic Image of Harry Houdini's Classic Magical Rope Ties & Escapes from 1921The British Library Board is looking for someone to adopt Harry Houdini's Magical Rope Ties & Escapes.

In a very interesting new program, the premiere library for the English-speaking world (appropriately located in England) asks ordinary people like you to help preserve the great original books in their vast collection.

Among the 40 or so offerings is Houdini's classic from 1921.

The Library Board notes:

In this practical guide with illustrations, Houdini explains how to perform ties "of two distinct types, namely, those adapted to use in spiritualistic work, and those intended for the escape artist." A perfect adoption for fans of the most famous magician in the world.

The cost to adopt this book or one of the other classics of non-magic literature, is a mere £30.00 which prices out at about €36.00 or $47.50 in U.S. Dollars.

Your name will be on the certificate and in the records of the British Library.

Not to be outdone, our hometown Mystic Hollow Library has a similar adopt a book program.  For $2.50, you can adopt the entire 2009 collection of TV Guide in hardback.  Not quite a classic, but it does contain some very interesting information about what you could have seen during that crucial year in television. 

In the United States, analog television signals were replaced by their digital equivalent and millions of homes were stripped of their ability to see Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy.  The nation was rocked and congressional efforts to supply conversion boxes to those affected by this horrific crisis fell short.  You can read about the congress and the president's efforts to delay or fix the great social upheaval here.