Can you own a trick?

Can You Own a Move?

This article was inspired by a recent thread in the Contact Staff Facebook group (check it out – lots of cool people and interesting posts) but the subject matter applies to all juggling and circus arts. There is also plenty of parallels and cross over with intellectual property considerations in many other areas.

My personal attitude to this is summed up quite well by a clip from the Detours dance DVD (no longer available) of a breakdancer sat in a basket hoop: “Nobody here is the best b-boy… And nobody here made up a move either; people were probably doing this stuff thousands of years ago. We’re just manifesting at a different time”.

The same, I believe, is true with most juggling and manipulation props. For the most part we all play with fairly simple objects that would have been available to people for centuries. Perhaps with the exception of record breaking numbers juggling, though there is some evidence for people juggling large numbers of objects in the distant past, saying “I’m the first person to do this trick” is naïve and futile. Firstly because it’s impossible to know and secondly because it’s highly likely you aren’t!

You can certainly discover a trick for yourself having never seen it before. This is worth some credit and recognition, particularly if it moves your art form forward, it might even justify you giving it a name, but this doesn’t constitute ownership of the trick, in my book.

Having the attitude of owning a move and having rights over it can be detrimental to the discipline as a whole. Certainly in a niche discipline like contact staff where the rising standards and development of the art has come solely through enthusiastic amateurs who have had little or no professional training and are generally spread thinly across the world. It has only been though the generosity of certain key individuals and the community as a whole that contact staff is thriving. Had everyone had the attitude of “I came up with it, I’m not going to share it” contact staff probably wouldn’t exist today.

I find the parallel with sports like skateboarding interesting here. Once a new trick has been seen on a video or in a competition it’s fair game. The first person to do it may get their due recognition and even have the move named after them but it’s now open to anyone else to use it in their videos or competition runs. The competitive element would cease if skateboarders “owned” moves and restricted their use as this would put some people at a major advantage.

This is how is seems to work in the world of non-professional object manipulation and juggling. However, these disciplines are not competitive sports (for the most part – see here for an article on art vs sport) and when we start to think about professional performance rather than amateur enthusiasts things get a little more complicated.

With professional performers you have the added pressure of financial considerations – imitators can take earnings away from the originators. We’re not just talking about recognition anymore. But I still don’t think you can own a move, even in a professional context. I’ve heard some people say: “I’m not showing you my new trick because people steal it and then take shows away from me”. A show is, or at least should, be about much more than one trick. If you’re losing gigs purely because someone stole your finale trick then you need to work on the other areas of your performance as well.

However, I think you can claim ownership of the choreography and concept of a show or performance. If someone copies your sequences of moves, costumes and narrative behind your show then this is immoral and potentially illegal. An anecdote of just such an example of plagiarism was recounted in the thread that inspired this article. The people who had had their show stolen were very relaxed about the whole thing (though the person recounting the anecdote was furious). I suspect the laid back attitude springs from the good nature of the people involved and the fact that they were probably powerless to do anything about it. I have no idea how you’d go about patenting or copyrighting a performance or taking imitators to court but I imagine it would be an expensive, lengthy and stressful process.

We also start to get into the sticky subject of where we draw the line as to what you can own and what you can’t. In my opinion you can own choreography but you can’t own a single move but there is a lot in between those two extremes. (We could even argue about what exactly constitutes a single move!)

This seems to be analogous with musical intellectual property: you can own a song/symphony but you can’t own a note. Where the line is drawn in music, I don’t know; can musicians own phrases or sequences of notes? If so, how many notes do you need before a phrase is copyrightable?

The general tone of the result of the discussion in the contact staff group, at least for amateur spinners, was that sharing a move was your prerogative but that sharing is good. There was also a focus on being humble if you think you’ve come up with something new, reflecting the sentiments of the b-boy in the basketball hoop. On the other hand, there was an emphasis on the sensitivity and respect of the people ‘stealing’ the new trick. If you see something new you want to learn for yourself you should use your common sense to decide if the person you’re ‘stealing’ from would mind. You should also credit them in your future videos and try to make the move your own by adding something different to it – making a new combination or adding some personal flair to it.