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September 19, 2012
Copyright, Copying, and Magic
Remember earlier this week I said there's a copyright angle to everything
? In a piece full of reverence for magic and mystery, Chris Jones's story in Esquire about Teller (the magician) contains yet another interesting copyright angle
As Jones tells it, theft is rife among magicians. They copy each others' tricks and sometimes outright 'steal' a performance piece. In this case a magician performing as Gerard Bakardy appeared to have stolen - in the sense of copied and performed in an altered form - one of Teller's signature tricks. The signature trick was the subject of a 1983 copyright registration that Teller made, in an effort to protect not the trick itself, but the performance art wrapped around the trick. Teller willingly reveals that he has used at least three different methods to do the trick in dispute - but the method is not what the audience cares about. The audience cares about a performance, and Teller is asserting that his performance (of the trick) is a unique artistic creation, as worthy of legal protection as any other act of artistry.
According to Jones, Teller has in the past relied on professional courtesy when confronted with other magicians who have lifted his tricks, rather than legal protections. In this case, however, Bakardy was not just performing the trick, but offering to sell its secrets to anyone who would meet his price. Also, Bakardy was unwilling to extend professional courtesy. When Teller contacted him, the story goes that Bakardy asked for more money and favors than Teller was willing to pay.
Intellectual property protection for something like the performance of a trick is a difficult thing - to begin with most performers don't have the money to pursue a court case against someone who has lifted the trick and even if they do the case itself will be public which may end up revealing secrets the magician would rather didn't get into wide circulation. As a result legal protections such as Teller's copyright may not be worth the paper they're printed on. Nevertheless, Teller sued... and Bakardy vanished. No one has even been able to serve him with proper notice of the lawsuit, though Teller got permission to serve notice by email (which has gone unanswered).
Whether Teller's copyright protection will stand up in court is a mystery yet to be revealed.
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