Harry Houdini preparing to jump into the Harvard River (via Library of Congress)

We might think of intellectual property as a modern concept, but the politics surrounding ownership of innovations at the turn of the 20th century were an absolute bloodbath. With patent trolls like Thomas Edison and Charles Goodyear staking claims on the intellectual property of others — to the tune of tremendous profit and influence — it’s no wonder that protecting one’s inventions was top-of-mind for innovators of the day.

Since there was no process for patenting or copywriting magic tricks, famous illusionist Harry Houdini (neé Erik Weisz/Erich Weiss) found a way to perform a little legal sleight of hand to protect his professional trickery. In 1911, he developed a famous act, titled “The Chinese Water Torture Cell,” comprised of the magician’s feet being locked in stocks before he is suspended in mid-air from his ankles with a restraint brace, and then lowered into a glass tank overflowing with water. The restraint is locked to the top of the cell.  

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As Houdini learned from a previous trick, called the Milk Can Escape, owning a patent for a trick did little to stop imitators from stealing his thunder. So for the Chinese Water Torture Cell, he took a new approach. Before taking the trick public in 1912, Houdini first performed the escape for a single-person audience in the guise of a one-act play he called Houdini Upside Down! He then copyrighted the play, thus securing his ownership of the trick contained therein. Only then was he ready to take the act into a public performance, debuting the escape at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany, on September 21, 1912. He continued to perform this signature escape until his death in 1926, and though several movies depict him dying in the torture cell, it had nothing to do with his demise in actuality.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell was one of three famous illusions that the Hungarian immigrant and magician registered as “playlets,” or short plays, with the US Copyright Office between 1911 and 1914. Dramatic compositions have been eligible for copyright protection since 1856, and Houdini’s approach ensured that he had legal grounds to protect his legacy — a practice which he pursued aggressively, according to historic rumor. The scripts of Houdini’s playlets are now held within the Reader’s Collection of the Library of Congress Copyright Office Drama Deposits, but the lesson for those who wish to make their mark on the world is clear: it is not enough to innovate the art, but also to innovate the systems that enable artists to profit from their own IP. One suspects that Mr. Houdini would be busily minting his own NFTs if he were alive today.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....