Do No Harm
“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.