This hastily drafted ramble merely touches on points worthy of deeper analysis and longer discussions. The enduring problem about stealing in magicdom and what may be permissible to use has a long history. A quotation Ive long used isWe are parasites of our precursorswhich unfortunately has a pejorative ring to it. How we choose to act in this parasitic relation can be telling. When we get support, sustenance, advantage, significant knowledge in such a relation (because of accessibility) and do not equally reciprocate or play by agreed upon rules, the character of this kind of parasitism should be considered selfish and condemnable.
Imitation is a common way anybody learns ANYTHING. Magicians, certainly not being exceptions, as beginners largely learn by seeing other magicians perform or explain. What is seen is based on IDEAS and CONCEPTS, expressed in SCHEMES and PROCEDURES, accompanied by scripted or spontaneous TALK. When considered as strictly being ideas or concepts, they are momentarily regarded as ABSTRACT things. They are considered to be FREELY-floating entities (Platonic Ideals?) available-for-the-taking.
Magic dealers of course SELL many of these ideas, concepts, schemes, props, and patter. In other words, they COMMODIFY these things and attach prices to them. And in the COMMERCE of magic it is implicit in the TRANSACTION that a SANCTION existsthe sanction being that the buyer can to do anything he wishes with whatever he purchased. This, as most of us eventually realize, becomes a banshee-screaming Pandoras Box.
Of course, initiates want access to everything. Then once they have gained access and know precious secrets, they want the backrooms of magicdom to shut forever. They do not want anyone else to know the secrets they now know. (When I learned how the Brainwave deck was done, I thought: Houdini would have paid big bucks to know the secret of this phenomenal trick and would do everything in his power to suppress its secret.)
Back in the old days when privileged access to secrets was the norm, insiders protected them; and for the most part they honored the signature work of colleagues and fellow insiders. Those betraying this trust were ostracized and shunned. (There were of course exceptions.)
Also, in the not-so-distant past, amateurs did not routinely interfere with professionals. They did not invade their turf, steal their lines or material (unless they thought they could get away with it), or publish other magicians ideas without permission. (Notice that I said, routinely. Plagiarism and rip-offs have always existed; however, it was not as rampant as today.)
Sad Example: Don Alan was raised in the old tradition where amateurs bought stuff from dealers and then performed for friends or at parochial venues. In other words, they performed classics and new stuff, but they did not perform the Chinese Sticks exactly like Roy Benson or do the billiard balls like Buckingham in larger public venues or on national television. When Don Alan became famous, he was grateful to Frances Ireland for her steadfast support and help. To express his gratitude he gave her permission to sell many of his signature PRESENTATIONS such as the Bowl Routine and Ranch Bird. Since these tricks were seen on television, Magic Inc. (Irelands) sold lots of these routines to magicians, who immediately glommed onto them and IMITATED Donchapter and verse. One Chicago magician completely copied Dons entire act.
So, whats the upshot?
At time passed there were many Don-Alan clones and some of them competed for the same jobs Don had been working. After awhile Don became bitter, disenchanted and disengaged.
When we were working on his book, I had the temerity to tell Don that the best way to avoid imitation is to be inimitable. Then you are the sole owner of a franchise that is ESSENTIALLY YOU. End of story.
Recently there was an interesting show on Bravo called The 100 Greatest TV Characterspeople such as Lucy, Archie Bunker, Ralph Cramden, Ed Norton, the Fugitive, the Fonz, Frazier, etc. One commentator said, When you (as a viewer) cannot imagine another actor playing a certain character, then the actor known for playing that character OWNS the part. Again, end of story.
There have been only a few inimitable magicians.
The rest, alas, struggle to express themselves the best they can, hoping that whatever is uniquely theirs will shine through what they have learned through imitation and expropriationincluding the borrowed and the bought.
Ethical issues are complicated and questions that arise are easier to pose than to answer.