Arts & Entertainment | June 19, 2021 3:04 pm

Revisiting Harry Houdini’s Copyright Magic

Houdini was an innovator in more ways than one

Harry Houdini
Clever escapes weren't the only innovation Harry Houdini came up with.
Library of Congress

In the world of magic, it isn’t enough to simply come up with an innovative trick — you also need to be capable of pulling off the definitive version of it. The history of magic abounds with instances of magicians borrowing or stealing from one another and rolling out modified or improved versions of what had previously been the signature moves of another. (If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, you’ve seen this taken to its logical extreme.) And in some less contentious cases, a storied magician has shared their secrets with others.

Finding a way to protect a particular trick is something that has frustrated many a magician over the years. In a new article for Hyperallergic, Sarah Rose Sharp explored how venerated magician Harry Houdini kept some of his most acclaimed routines safeguarded. As it turns out, copyright law might be a magician’s best friend.

As the article explains, Houdini created a trick involving an underwater escape, dubbed “The Chinese Water Torture Cell.” Prior to giving it its proper debut, however, Houdini unveiled it as part of a play called Houdini Upside Down! Said play had exactly one person in the audience, but that sufficed for him to copyright the play — and thus establish his ownership of the trick performed within it.

All in all, Houdini did this 3 times between 1911 and 1914. Sharp writes that this maneuver allowed Houdini “to innovate the systems that enable artists to profit from their own IP.” As deft and unexpected navigation goes, securing copyright to a magic trick might be one of Houdini’s cleverest achievements.