Do No Harm

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“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” – Mark Twain

A few days ago, my name was mentioned in a post on a chat group on Facebook. Apparently, some years ago, I expressed my unhappiness that magicians were appropriating jokes, lines, and routines I had not yet published. This post sparked a discussion. I entered and then withdrew from that discussion (and from the chat group), but I did have a few thoughts on the subject, which I would like to offer to you now.

Way back in 1993, I wrote an essay titled, “Ethics,” which I published in Workers 3. Here’s a portion of it:

There has been much discussion lately concern­ing ethical behavior, but for the most part the people doing the writing and talking are the creative people in magic, the people who have the most to lose from thievery. This makes perfect sense; after all, if your house is empty, the last thing you will worry about is being ripped off.

Consider the following scenario: Pretend you are a craftsman whose specialty is building furni­ture. For the last two years you have been building a magnificent dining room set. Every piece was finished by hand, the filigree in the chairs painstakingly carved. I come to your house for dinner and I admire this beautiful piece of work. So, one night, when I know you are gone, I bring a truck to your home, smash in your door, and steal the dining room set. Is this wrong?

How about this: You are an artist, and for the past year you have been painting a series of wildlife pictures. I visit your studio and admire your work. So, one night, I break into your studio and steal your paintings. Is this wrong?

How about this: You are a computer programmer. For the past three years you have been developing a Desktop Publishing program. You put it on the market, and one of my friends purchases it. I admire the program, so my friend makes me a copy and photocopies the documentation. Is this wrong?

How about this: A friend loans me some compact discs and some videos. Before I return them, I make copies for myself. Is this wrong?

How about this: You are at a magic convention. You watch a performer who has some new, funny lines in his act, material that has never been offered for sale. You write down the lines and use them in your act when you get home. Is this wrong? 

The answer to all the above is, of course, yes, it is wrong. I doubt anyone reading this is guilty of the first two examples. Most people still consider the theft of physical property to be morally wrong and reprehensible. And yet the theft of intellectual or creative property seems not so wrong. Why should this be?

I believe there are three ways in which the wrongness of this action is rationalized away. First, if I make a copy of something you own, you still have your original. I am not depriving you of your book, video, compact disc, or computer program; I am just making one for myself. To many, this feels less wrong than breaking into someone’s home and stealing their stereo.

Second, the person I am hurting by my actions is someone far away from me, some faceless entity who will never know of my theft and, therefore, will not be so traumatically affected by it.

Third, this type of stealing is really easy. It can be done during the light of day at my local copy shop, or in the comfort of my own home. There is no risk to me physically, nor is there any risk to my reputation, nor is there any risk of repercussion. The perfect crime. Professor Moriarty would be proud.

The above rationalizations are just that, rationalizations. They help us explain away our wrongdoing. We can sleep easier at night, wrapped in the blanket of this comforting thought, “Who am I really hurting?”

I posted this excerpt from the Ethics essay as part of the thread on the Facebook group. I was met with the reply: “This is a false equivalency. If someone steals your table, you are deprived of the use of the table. If someone steals your lines or your routines, you still have the use of those routines.” 

It is this comment I want to examine, because at the heart of it lies one of the great problems in the world of magic.

There are magicians, professionals and part-time pros, who strive to be unique through their onstage personas, their repertoire, and their scripts (lines, jokes, bits of business). When a magician appropriates any of that material without permission, there is a tangible result. Other magicians see the thief perform the stolen material, and they, too, decide to appropriate it as well. Whether or not the original thief was a professional, the material eventually appears in the acts of people who perform for the public. The creator of the material has been robbed of his unique identity, and this has a tangible effect on his or her ability to make a living.

I believe this type of thievery hurts not just the creator of the material; it harms all of magic. To many laymen, magicians are simply interchangeable heads on top of cheesy tuxedos. Why? Because we all do the same routines and use the same lines. Instead of using conjuring to showcase our personality and our worldview, we hide behind tricks and patter that worked for someone else. With each iteration, the theft of lines and material lessens the stature of magic as an art form.

Sadly, one of the major traditions in the history of magic is thievery. From the murky history of Sawing a Woman into Halves, to some bozo trying to rip off Teller’s signature Shadows illusion, to the knock-offs that have driven great creators like John Cornelius away the magic community, magicians have constantly stolen from each other. It is a pitiable and pitiful situation.

Years ago, in self-defense, I made the decision that, if I was performing in a situation where a lot of magicians would be in attendance, I would only perform material I had published. (There are several routines in the Workers series that were published only because they were being appropriated and I needed to establish paternity). I have offered this advice to many other magicians.

Is there a solution to this? Probably not. But here are three things you can do. First, understand that, if you want to be a conjuror, your priority should be to establish yourself as a unique individual, and this uniqueness should be reflected in your onstage character, your choice of material, and your script. No one else’s patter is going to fit you as well as the words you craft for yourself. Be you; more important, don’t be afraid to be you.

Second, do the right thing. Theft of someone else’s material is not a victimless crime; it hurts the creator and it hurts all of magic.

Third, let your life be an example to others. People who do not display ethical behavior have probably not been taught ethical behavior. Talk with others about the negative repercussions of theft in the magic community. Explain why theft is wrong.

I have no belief in supernatural gods, nor do I have much use for any organized religion. However, I am a firm believer in a suggestion that is common to almost all religions: don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want them to do to you.

It’s a simple piece of advice that seems to be devilishly hard to follow.

 

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  • Michael Close
Comments 2
  • Rene Chevalier
    Rene Chevalier

    thank you for writing this up and thank you for broaden my view!

    … at the same time i think it is a human thing to imitate, to learn from that and after that to create ones own stuff. i see that in basicly everything and i see that we wouldnt be where we are, if we would settle for the worse, even though we know there is something better to incorporate, that would improve each one and in the long run improve everything.

    others have even stronger ethics and wouldnt allow anyone to talk about their ideas in magic, if your conversation partner hasn’t bought their content as well. thats understandable by the same standards you mentioned above, at the same time it would have prevented me to hear of vernons ideas or others by other magicians, as i didnt have literature of them myself.

    or lets take david blaine … he created this new way of presenting magic in tv and soon there where quite a bunch who did pretty much the same in TV.

    i usually get blank eyes, if i nowadays talk about blaine at gigs, when they talk about street magicians they saw in tv or youtube, BUT they do love MAGIC exactly because they have seen it done as blaine did it, just by dynamo or DMC or some random youtuber, that is viral and nobody knows of.

    they copied the style and to my mind made the life of working magicians easier, as they advanced the perception of magic enormiuosly.

    i think there are more sides to the medal.

    i know it hurts, if my stuff is taken without my consent or without credit. … on the other hand the stronger the character the less likely the lines and jokes are able to be stolen. it wouldnt work for others very well and if … then it may be.

    protectionism keeps things as they are, the opposite keeps things moving foreward.

    how many where afraid of the masked magician and how many reinvented the old tricks, just because of that and gave magic a new spin.

    “everyone” knows that there is a key ring involved in the linking ring routine, but as the audience knows that the magicians started to use that to their advantage and made them believe there is none.

    stealing pushes the creative people to invent and to improve even more, thats what germany used to do, when china started to copy a lot of stuff from over here.

    … as i said, i can see this everywhere and is not only common among magicians and it is part of the world we live in.

    we might protest it or might accept it, even with folded arms … i see low chances that there is a way around it as it seems to be a human trait.

    by the way i do believe in god and also would like to cite: “the one who didnt … might throw the first stone” :-)

    rene

  • Randy Naviaux
    Randy Naviaux

    Years ago, almost two decades now, a friend of mine and I would borrow books from each other’s libraries. (Physical books mind you.) It was very clear in my mind the answers to all the above questions. However, this was a gray area to me. Did I have the right to lend out a book that I had purchased? Obviously this isn’t illegal. But it still felt a bit off. My friend and I came up with what I think to be a solution that satisfies the “do unto others” equation. If one of us found a routine in a borrowed book that we wished to learn then we had to buy a copy of the book ourself.

    How do you feel about this solution?

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