It seems only fitting that this April Fool’s Day blog post shine a spotlight on a magic trick. Although, perhaps the term “illusion” is more appropriate here. The illusion in question, called Shadows, is the product of famous magician Teller’s imagination. While Teller’s Shadows may be the most poetic magical illusion ever crafted, it gained additional publicity in 2012 when Teller sued a Dutch magician, who had replicated the illusion and offered to sell it to curious customers. Last week, the court issued an opinion holding that, while “magic [illusions] are not copyrightable,” Teller’s Shadows is protected as a “dramatic act” or “pantomime.”
Teller began performing the Shadows illusion in the 1970s, and registered it as a dramatic work with the United States Copyright Office in 1983. The illusion begins with a rose in a vase, bathed in light that casts a perfect shadow. Teller enters with a large knife, and strategically “cuts” part of the shadow. When the shadow is “cut,” the corresponding piece of the rose separates from the stem and fall. In March of 2012, Gerard Dogge posted two videos on his YouTube account, since removed, purporting to have created a version of Shadows “different and more impossible” from Teller’s. While the court notes that there are “organizations in the magic community,” demanding to be taken seriously, that could sanction Dogge for his actions, Teller decided to protect Shadows with claims of copyright infringement and unfair competition.
While Teller’s Shadows may be the most poetic magical illusion ever crafted, it gained additional publicity in 2012 when Teller sued a Dutch magician, who had replicated the illusion and offered to sell it to curious customers. Last week, the court issued an opinion holding that, while “magic [illusions] are not copyrightable,” Teller’s Shadows is protected as a “dramatic act” or “pantomime.”
Dogge advanced four claims in his defense. First, that Shadows is a magical illusion and therefore not entitled to Copyright Protection. Second, and perhaps most puzzlingly, that Teller abandoned the copyright. Third, that Teller and others “openly challenged” others to copy the work. And fourth, that Teller failed to give notice that Shadows was copyrighted. The court held that since Teller registered the illusion with such incredible detail, including the “stage directions acted out as a single performer,” that the illusion was a “dramatic work” or “pantomime,” both of which are clearly covered under copyright law. The court similarly dispenses with Dogge’s remaining claims in quick fashion. Shadows is one of Teller’s most famous illusions, although he has a wonderfully prolific repertoire, and he has performed it regularly since its creation. Teller couldn’t have abandoned it without expressly disavowing the copyright, which clearly has not happened. The court also notes that “challenging” the public does not waive copyright, and that notice is not required to enforce a copyright. The court granted Teller’s motion for summary judgment, and concluded that Dogger violated his copyright.
While this case does extend copyright protections to some class of magical illusions, it fails to answer any truly interesting questions. For instance, how does Teller achieve the Shadows illusion? Or, is magic real? The effects of this ruling are still unclear. The magic community thrives on innovation and creativity, and burdensome copyright litigation may stifle that innovation. On the other hand, copyright protection may allow magicians, like Teller, to protect truly master class illusions, like Shadows. In a world where revealing illusions is taboo, except where it’s okay, copyright protection could be an added protection for magicians looking to define their craft.