Is internet piracy killing the magician's trade?

4th Sep 2010 | 09:00

Is internet piracy killing the magician's trade?

How the web is changing the face of the mystery arts

Is piracy killing magic?

Magic is experiencing something of a renaissance. Its online communities are thriving as wannabe Derren Browns rub shoulders with professionals. Once-struggling magic shops are thriving in new online incarnations as amateurs flock in to impress their friends or branch out into a lucrative new career.

Magicians themselves have even begun producing their own material for sale. On the surface, then, everything seems rosy in the world of the mystery arts. But magic relies on secrets, and one thing the internet can't keep is a secret.

For some professionals, the internet has given rise to a new fear – that of coming across a heckler who has seen how the trick is done on YouTube and is determined to ruin it for everyone.

The secret's out

Hang out with magicians for long enough and eventually the twin problems of internet exposure and piracy come up: "It is not a victimless crime," says magician Stephan Ward, speaking about magic piracy.

"Many of the creators rely on sales of their products to earn a living. There are a couple of examples where the creator cannot perform shows any more due to health reasons, so he's decided to make his secrets available to other performers. This makes the theft even more wrong."

The internet has transformed the magic scene into a multimillion pound industry, but life online has been both a blessing and curse for its practitioners. "I tend to work more on the corporate circuit now," says Ward, "but when I do perform at a bar or restaurant I've had the problem of people either looking things up on their phone while you do the trick, or telling you they saw it on YouTube."

Youtube magic

YOUTUBE MAGIC:YouTube videos might show you how tricks are done, but not how to perform them well

Rich Newman is a semi-professional magician who appears regularly at Bristol's Illusions Magic Bar. "I've never had someone actually find what I'm doing on YouTube while I'm at the table," he says, "but certainly afterwards I've had people come up to me and say 'Is this right? Is this what you did?' You have to use the old magician's trick and say, 'Can you keep a secret? Well, so can I!' You have to keep schtum."

"I have a number of friends who are table workers," adds Paul Brook, a mindreader from Birmingham. "One of them went around the tables performing at a wedding recently and did a certain trick which is an astonishingly visual thing to see, but when he moved onto the next trick, someone at the same table had typed something into their iPhone and on YouTube there was the explanation. So he showed it to everyone while the guy was still working."

Brook has spent time investigating the quality of YouTube exposure videos and isn't impressed: "With YouTube, you won't be getting the whole trick. You get the bare bones and you won't look good performing something you learn on there."

Paul brook

PAUL BROOK:Paul Brook marks each copy of his work to help trace illegal copies

Instant piracy

Falling prices also mean that very small magic companies and even individuals can now produce professional DVDs for other magicians at a reasonable cost. But just like other forms of digital media, these discs are also difficult to protect from copying, as one prominent figure in the UK mentalism scene has discovered.

"My own DVD had been pirated within a week of its release and after only nine sales, all of which were to people I knew," says Dr Todd Landman, cofounder of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers, and organiser of the society's bi-annual Tabula Mentis conference. "As a result my new book project is printed and secretly marked, and available in hard copy only to avoid ebook file sharing," he says.

Todd landman

MAGIC PIRACY:Dr Todd Landman had his own magic DVD pirated after just nine sales

Piracy and exposure can even bar well known performers from entry into magic societies: "Our rules forbid members from engaging in exposure," says Dr Landman. "In fact we denied entry to a top mentalist from Canada who has openly exposed crucial secrets of our craft online."

Tricking the pirates

Pirates should perhaps be wary of downloading stolen material for another reason. Some creators of new magic tricks deliberately seed file-sharing networks with corrupted versions of their material. The person downloading and learning it might think he's about to stun his friends, but the creator is actually playing an elaborate trick on him that will make him look stupid.

This is an approach that's catching on, but others simply mark each copy of their work so that they can tell who the upload has come from. "Part of the approach I take to piracy of the material I sell commercially is to mark each copy so that I can at least backtrack," says Brook.

"One of my books is over 600 pages long, and you'd think it was safe from piracy, but it wasn't. Doing a search on various filesharing sites, I came across it. I thought it was one of the ones that I'd put there to fool people, but no, someone had scanned all those pages. You have to wonder at someone who spends all that money on a 600-page book and then thinks: 'I'm going to scan that bad boy in'".

The dealer's view

Costas Damianou runs the Magic Tau online store. Willful sharing of secrets that may have cost the person sharing them a considerable amount of money to buy makes him genuinely angry.

"A while back I heard that a friend's books were being pirated, so I decided to conduct an experiment," he says. Within just 20 minutes he had found online copies of DVDs, books and lecture notes with a commercial value of thousands of pounds. "A few of these had only been released a few hours before," says Damianou.

"This means that someone went to the expense of buying them and then giving them all away for free." But such people seem to think they are some kind of hero or modern day Robin Hood.

What's Damianou's message to them? "Let me tell you something for nothing," he says. "You are not taking from the rich and giving to the poor, you are a thief giving to other thieves and freeloaders. Anyone who uses these sites is not only breaking the law; they also have no right to call themselves a magician. We have ethics in magic and we do not steal from our peers."

TalkMagic forum

TALK MAGIC:Some members of the TalkMagic forum have gone on to find commercial success

Some pirates see so little wrong with what they're doing that they'll even brag to the people it hurts: "I have heard customers say that they will never buy a magic DVD as they can get it for free either by downloading it or getting a copy from a friend," says Damianou.

"This being said directly to the retailer shows how much people don't see that what they're doing is harming the industry."

Sharing success

Piracy apart, a mark of just how popular magic has become is that online magic forums are thriving. They're community sites where magicians, the creators of the tricks they perform and even magic dealers can be found debating the latest techniques and swapping ideas.

Paul Stevens is the chief moderator at Talk Magic, one of the UK's largest online magic forums. "The development of Talk Magic, along with other discussion boards, has certainly affected the art of magic," he says.

"Many newcomers display great enthusiasm but are quickly disappointed to find that the real secret to magic is practice, presentation, hard work and commitment. Anything less results in very poor magic and annoyed spectators."

This is something that resonates with Rich Newman. "Magic is very expensive," he says. "It's one of the most expensive and disappointing hobbies there is. You see something and go 'WOW!' but then you get the trick and go 'Oh', because there's a lot of work to fit it into your routine and your personality."

Rich newman

COSTLY BUSINESS:As a semi-professional, Rich Newman struggles with magic's expense

For those willing to put the hours in, however, fame and fortune could beckon, as Stephens confirms: "Many of our members have gone on to commercial success either in terms of performing or releasing their own work to great acclaim."

"I really like the fact that some of the forums have well-known magicians that will interact with other members," adds Ward. "And the dealers too – it is possible to ask any questions about their products and voice any concerns. It's also nice to talk to other professionals, exchange ideas and give a few tips to non-pros and people who are new to magic."

A vital aspect to magic forums is the review section. Reviews are posted by members, and can make or break a new trick. "Using a method or trick in the real world is a lot different to using it in your bedroom, so I always like it when you hear of workers giving their views of how it all pans out in the field," says Ward.

"One aspect [of Talk Magic] I'm particularly pleased to see," says Stephens, "is the rise and development of regional meetings. Not content with just sitting in front of a keyboard and chatting online, several groups of members have arranged to meet – usually in a pub somewhere – and share their art with each other as well as the public."

This is a great idea, but if you're meeting in a pub for an afternoon of vanishing coins, finding cards, reading thoughts or hypnosis, it's a good idea for someone to ask the landlord or manager if it's OK before you begin. Having attended several such meetings, I've witnessed first hand staff ejecting magicians after becoming worried that their activities might constitute a performance, which under some bylaws can require a licence.

Despite all the potential pitfalls, though, there's no doubt that the internet has altered the practice of magic for good, and no amount of trickery will change that.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 298

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