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April 8, 2014
Old Tricks, New Rulings
Back in 2012, I noted that the magician and performer Teller was in hot legal pursuit of someone whom he accused of stealing his magic performance
. Note that word carefully - performance is at issue here, as a judge who finally ruled for Teller last month has reaffirmed, you can't copyright a magic trick
However, the question is not whether the defendant, Gerard Dogge, stole the trick. The question is whether he is illegally copying a piece of performance that has been part of Teller's performance repertoire for nearly 40 years, according to the Hollywood Reporter story. The piece, called Shadows, was registered with the US Copyright office - this diagram comes from the copyright registration. That registration formed the basis of the case that Teller has just won at the district level. Dogge may yet appeal, and there's still to be a decision rendered as to whether Dogge's infringement was willful, which would affect damage awards. What Teller has established is that he is the author (creator) of this particular performance and so gets to control who can use it, in the way that a ballet choreographer or pantomime organizer would get similar rights.
My instinct, without having read the judge's ruling, is that this is right. A performance is a performance and the fact that a particular performance incorporates illusion or magic doesn't change the basic right of a performer under law to have a form of protection on their work.
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