The Strange World Of Magic Ethics

A recent controversy surrounding a hit magic show on Broadway has resurfaced an ethics tangent I was aware of but had forgotten about: magician ethics.

Magician Derek DelGaudio accused another magician of surreptitiously recording a video of an effect during a performance last month of his one-man show, “In & Of Itself.” The rival magician denied the allegation—it’s complicated, and you should read the whole tale here-–but the basic problem arises from the nature of magic tricks. They can’t be patented, because the patent would reveal how the magic trick was done in a publicly available source. This means, however, that a magician whose unique illusion he or she labored on and developed at great expenditure of time and expense can be stolen by another magician with the illusion’s creator having no legal recourse.

For a field that is all about fooling and deceiving people (who have consented to being deceived), magic has old and well-developed ethical traditions. Houdini, who took his name from a french magician named Robert Houdin, later exposed his role model as an unethical magician whose most famous illusions were stolen from other conjurers without payment or credit. Still, if a magician can figure out how another magician’s trick is performed by simply watching it, nothing legally or ethically dictates that that magician can’t perform the illusion as well. However, since magic is practiced by people who deceive for a living, it should come as no surprise that unethical practices are rampant.

Legendary American magician Harry Kellar crossed all ethical lines to discover the secret of the British magician John Nevil Maskelyne’s iconic floating lady trick. He spied on performances of the illusion using binoculars; he illicitly went backstage to inspect Maskelyne’s equipment, and, and finally bought bootlegged diagrams  from a  Maskelyne  assistants. Kellar became the first American to run hoops around a floating woman, until another magician stole the secret from him.

The possibility that DelGaudio’s magic was being electronically recorded for a rival’s professional espionage was condemned by his colleagues. Johnny Thompson, a Las Vegas-based magician and consultant, told the New York Times,

“There is rampant stealing, in my estimation, in our industry right now.Those of us who fight it, those of us who have ethics, we try hard to protect each other.”

Magicians even have an ethics code.  The International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians requires, among other conduct, that magicians…

ƒDisplay ethical behavior in the presentation of magic to the public and in our conduct as magicians, including not interfering with or jeopardizing the performance of another magician, either through personal intervention or the unauthorized use of another’s creation.


ƒRecognize and respect for rights of the creators, inventors, authors and owners of magic concepts, presentations, effect and literature, and their rights to have exclusive use of, or to grant permission for the use of by others of such creations.

This is all well and good, except that magicians are not licensed, and there is no way to punish a magician who willfully violates these principles to the detriment of another magician.

Except to turn him into a skunk or something…

12 thoughts on “The Strange World Of Magic Ethics

  1. Reminds of the horrifying/fascinating “Breaking the Magician’s Code” ( I avoided watching that for fear of it making me unable to enjoy magic anymore. Then I learned a couple of simple coin tricks and now I’m even more fascinated when I know how it’s done and see it precisely and perfectly performed. [I did watch the show, currently available on Netflix]

    Now when I see a magician perform I am a lot more focused on the acting, the deflection, the distraction. Unless it is something incredibly elaborate or deceivingly simple I can mostly figure it out, and still enjoy how the artist does it.

    • It’s all about the deflection and distraction.

      My wife and I teach Sunday school to pre-schoolers. One of the little girls was fascinated by my G-shock watch on my wrist, going through all the functions and illumination, etc. Another little girl came from the other direction and started talking to me about a toy and showing me what it does. When she was done, I looked back and the other girl was walking away with my watch on her wrist.

      How the…

      I mean…

      I wasn’t even angry. I was impressed.

  2. I watched that Netfix show as well. It shows just how mundane the actual magic is, and how good a performance artist (and student of human nature) a magician has to be.

    The two offset, for me. I am there to be entertained, after all.

  3. My belief is that magicians have a much harder row to how than most other performers. Not only do they have to have the technical skills, but they must be show-men, con artists, ad-lib experts and, sometimes, psychologists. As an actor, all I had to do was learn my lines (difficult for me) and present them in a convincing manner. Singers don’t have to do anything but sing and sometimes play…or BE…an instrument. So, being a magician is hard work…they don’t need the added distraction of a jealous colleague.

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