Patents and Magic

Chris Jones' article in Esquire about Teller and magic and idea theft is fantastic. I'm skeptical of the value of software patents on innovation, but in the person of Jim Steinmeyer, Jones makes a case that "patent" infringement in magic has had a depressive effect on magic trick innovation or R&D.

Steinmeyer is a magic trick inventor. He comes up with ideas for magic tricks, then sells them to magicians like David Copperfield to perform. He's like a screenwriter, but for magic. Few people realize how many magicians like David Blaine purchase the ideas for the tricks they perform. Steinmeyer even has the equivalent of production designers (like Bill Smith) to build the contraptions for his tricks. I imagine Steinmeyer with a warehouse like the one in The Prestige, just brimming to the ceilings with coffins, tanks, saws, top hats, and cages. The overlap between magic and movies shouldn't be surprising; both are performance arts, and movies are a form of a long con.

According to Steinmeyer, patent theft has taken its toll on the economic viability of his trade.

At least another thousand magicians have bought knockoffs built by a man in Indiana, and a guy in Sicily, and a team of reverse engineers in China.

"Things are just out of control," Smith says. "It's the world, and it's getting worse. There have always been thieves in magic, but thievery has never been so bad as it is now. The biggest shame is, guys like Jim — Jim is retreating. I'm sure he has tons of other good ideas, but he's not making them, because it's not worth it. He's writing books instead."

"Invention is all fuzzy, sloppy stuff," Steinmeyer says. "I have patents, and I have had patents that have expired. Everything has a limited lifetime. But when a person can't make a living by coming up with new material, that's when you have to wonder about the system. I would say that over the last few years, the last ten years, it's a net zero. I'm putting as much money into it as I'm getting out."

The article does say Steinmeyer has never sued someone who has stolen one of his tricks, so maybe his economic argument is just supposition. There are other considerations, though. A cruel irony with magic is that suing someone over one of your patented magic tricks may mean revealing how the trick is done in court, "making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it."

But the article has more of note than a dive into the world of patents as it applies to magic. It is canny about magic. For example:

The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical.

That's something my brother James and I learned every time we purchased a magic trick off of Penguin Magic and realized how it was done. As with sausage, it's best not to tour the factory.

And then there's the time the article spends with Teller. Among non-magicians, Teller is a person often cited as an inspiration because he's an obsessive artist. He's perhaps the most well-known high priest of the craft and upholder of the magic's unwritten code.

There's a story in there about a long con Teller constructed around a short story called "Enoch Soames." It could only ever be performed once. And the description of a magic trick called Honor System that's less an illusion than a test of faith.

Oh, just go read it.