Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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The Problem of Plagiarism

In Entertainment

 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

People who steal ideas often justify their actions by saying, "In entertainment there is nothing new, everything has been done before."  Somebody once excused stealing one of my ideas by telling their club, "This is one of Charlie's routines. I'm sure he won't mind if I steal it, because he probably stole it himself." They were wrong. It was my original creation, and I didn't like them stealing it. I have released many of my routines for use by other entertainers, but that particular routine was a bit that has become one of my trademarks so I reserve it for my own use.

I am not a lawyer, and am not qualified to give legal advice.  The following is my opinion based on the information I have been given.  For legal advice about a specific situation, consult a qualified lawyer.

 Unethical Behavior

Excusing plagiarism by saying the other person probably stole it first is not new. In 1916, Charles Amador changed his name to Charlie Aplin, copied Chaplin's appearance, and tried to reproduce Chaplin's routines in his own movies. When Chaplin sued him, his defense was that Chaplin's appearance was composed of things Chaplin had copied from others so that it could be copied. His lawyers listed every element of Chaplin's costume and the name of somebody who had used it previously. For example, George Beban had used the brush mustache in 1890. The Nibble Brothers had used a flexible cane by the turn of the century. The judge ruled that while the elements had been previously used, the "costume en ensemble" had been created by Chaplin, and combined with his name was his exclusive property protected under the law of unfair competition.

            Using the same standard for entertainment routines means that although each separate element may have been used before, the combination is a creation belonging to the originator and shouldn't be copied.

 Cheating Yourself

         When you copy another entertainer, you are cheating yourself. As long as you are doing material best suited for others, you are not doing the material that is best suited for you.

            A copy is always inferior.  When you make photocopies of other copies the quality of each succeeding generation is worse.  Sharp details become blurred and small blotches become larger. The same is true with entertainment routines. 

            Subtle touches that made the original version so rich aren’t noticed by the imitators and become forgotten.  When Dick Van Dyke imitated his friend Stan Laurel on The Dick Van Dyke Show, he was careful to get everything just right.  When he called Stan to get his reaction, Stan said, “It was just fine Dicky, but…”  Stan spent the next twenty minutes telling him what he had missed. 

Mistakes and flaws in logic are perpetuated when routines are copied. In an open mike show at a U-W Clown Camp On The Road ® program, Don "Homer" Burda performed a floating table routine.  The table was a lightweight one with a nail head sticking up from the center of the top.  Don wore a ring that had a slot in it.  Slipping the slot around the nail allowed Don to pick up the table, but the appearance was that the table floated and Don's fingers on top were merely keeping it from getting away.  The gimmick jammed and Don wasn't able to release the table.  He improvised floating movements as he stalled and tried to free the gimmick. Finally, he was able to shake the table loose and catch it with the other hand.  Several years later Don saw a performance by a clown who had been at that show.  The clown performed a floating table routine that was a copy of Don’s, including some of the moves Don had made trying to release the table.  Because this performer’s gimmick wasn’t jammed, the table didn’t stay attached during those moves and suddenly crashed to the ground.  He didn’t know the purpose for the moves, but thought that since Don had performed them they had to be part of the routine.

            Sometimes entertainers who resort to plagiarism aren’t smart enough to steal accurately. A dealer at a clown convention in 1990 was selling words cut out of foam rubber.  One of the words was “SOMETHING.”  A creative clown bought that word and used it for a hilarious routine in single skit competition.  He held the word in his hands, and said, “I’ve got something on my hands.”  He held it behind his back, acted frightened, and said, “I think there is something behind me.”  He put the word on top of his head, and said, “I’ve got something on my mind.”  He screamed, held the word in front of one eye, and exclaimed, “Oh, no, I’ve got something in my eye!”  He continued doing several more similar lines.  Although his routine was not a skit technically, he won the competition.  Whatever wins tends to be copied.  The dealer quickly sold out of the word “SOMETHING” because people wanted to copy the routine.  He still had plenty of other words like “TIME,” “ANYTHING,” and “NOTHING.”

            The next weekend, I saw a professional performance by a clown who had attended that convention.  Since the dealer was out of the foam rubber “SOMETHING,” this clown had purchased a piece of foam rubber shaped like the word “TIME.”  In his show, he held it in his hands, and said, “I’ve got time on my hands.”   So far so good.  He held it behind his back, acted frightened, and said, “I think there is time behind me.”  That didn’t make complete sense.  He put the word on top of his head, and said, “I’ve got time on my mind.”  That was possible, but stretching it.  He screamed, held the word in front of one eye, and exclaimed, “Oh, no, I’ve got time in my eye!”  People in the audience looked at each other and shrugged.  That didn’t make any sense.  The clown continued using all the lines from the award winning routine although they were completely inappropriate for the prop he was using.  His routine fell completely flat.

            Imitation is Limitation.  When somebody creates an original routine it capitalizes on their strengths and compensates for their weaknesses.  It is limited by their abilities.  When you imitate another performer, you are imposing their limitations upon yourself.  You are letting what they can not do dictate what you do.  Not only are you accepting their weaknesses, you are ignoring your strengths.  When you copy somebody else you are also limiting yourself to their thought process and ignoring your own valuable experience, knowledge, point of view, and personality.

Once you’ve earned a reputation for stealing ideas, you cut off the flow of ideas available to you. I know of one club with several people that steal ideas. As part of their educational program, the club wanted people to perform a portion of their birthday party shows. They had difficulty getting volunteers because everyone knew anything performed would be copied. If people are afraid you will steal their ideas, they become secretive. When you copy ideas, you take without giving anything back. People resent that. They soon exclude you from the flow of ideas.

 Harm To Entertainment As A Creative Art

 As a group, clowns tend to condemn people who steal another clown's make up and costume, but think nothing of people who steal another clown's ideas. Paul Jung said, "The plagiarism of ideas hurts clowning more then copying make up and costuming."

How does plagiarism hurt entertainment in general?

            When ideas can be freely copied, we discourage people from making the effort to create new routines. There is little incentive to try to be unique if everybody is going to immediately copy what you do so you are no longer unique. The art as a whole then stagnates.

            Nothing takes the joy out of creation sooner than to hear, "Oh, we just saw somebody else do that." (This happens too often in amateur clown clubs. I've seen it happen in parades, where a clown sees somebody else do a bit they like so they copy it and move ten feet in front of the originator.)

            It takes time and effort to create something new. It may also require a financial investment in failed prototypes. The people who work to be creative deserve to benefit from their investment.

            When you steal their idea you are also stealing what they invested in developing it.

            If entertainers are discouraged from creating new ideas because those ideas will be stolen, we lose more then just the ideas they would have created. We lose the additional ideas that would have been inspired in others. A group of people working together to inspire each other will generate many more ideas then each person working on their own. When stealing makes people reluctant to share ideas, the source of inspiration for more ideas ends, and everyone suffers.

 Distinction Between Stealing and Inspiration

             Kenny Ahern said, “Be careful of the fine line between inspiration and imitation.”

How do we distinguish between stealing and being inspired by something?  If you change it, improve it, adapt it in some way, you were inspired by the idea. If you take one element out of a routine, and use it with elements from other sources to create a unique combination you were inspired. If you try to copy an entire routine the way somebody else performed it you are stealing it.

            Perhaps the definition of plagiarism in writing can help us. The copyright law says that while an idea can be used, the expression of that idea is the property of the originator. Also, it allows you to use a portion of another work. There is a debate on how much you can use, for example some people advise that you quote no more then 50 words from another work. The legal benchmark is whether or not your use detracts from the originator's ability to benefit from their creation? The originator has the right to all possible benefits from the work involved in their creation. To steal from a written work is stealing from the legal property owned by another.  A piece of writing is legally considered to be an actual piece of property that is owned, can be sold or rented, and will be part of an estate passed onto heirs.  The copyright law protects a specific expression of an idea, not the idea itself.

            Translating that into entertainment terms, you can use the basic idea behind a routine, but the specific way the routine was performed is the property of the originator. You can not detract from their ability to benefit from what they have created. 

 Public Domain

             To confuse things there is something called "public domain." These items are no longer considered the property of an individual, often because of the length of time that has passed since they were originated. They are owned by the public in general. It is permissible to copy from anything that is in the public domain. You can copy it, but it isn't ethical to claim that you are the originator.

            How do you know if something you see performed is an original creation or part of the public domain and available for everyone to use? If it is something you have seen many entertainers perform, it is possibly part of the public domain.  It may also be something that has been widely plagiarized.  If in doubt, the easiest way to be sure is to ask the entertainer you saw use it.

 Class Room Examples

             If an instructor teaches a routine in a class, you can assume they are granting you the rights to perform it. However, if a routine is performed as part of a demonstration show at a convention or workshop, instead of taught in a class, you should consider it like any other show and not copy bits that you see.  If somebody performs something in competition, open mike, or a session for critiques, that does not grant you permission to perform it.  They are an individual performing in a type of show, not an instructor who has agreed to teach you.  Stealing an idea from those shows is just as wrong ethically.

            While you can perform routines an instructor has taught in a class, you don’t have the right to include it in classes that you teach yourself.  That detracts from their ability to earn income by teaching others how to perform it.  When you teach, everything in your class should either be public domain, your original creation, or something that you have obtained permission to teach.

 Class Plagiarism

             I think one of the biggest detriments to the advancement of clowning is the copycat clown classes and schools.  Too many people take the notes from the clown class they attended and use them right away to teach their own clown class.  They think that since they "graduated" from a clown class they are qualified to teach one.  A party game is to have everybody stand in a circle. You whisper something to the first person who then whispers it to the next.  The second person whispers it to the third and so on.  It is amazing how distorted the message has become by the time it gets all the way around the circle.  The same thing happens with the copycat clown schools.  Information gets distorted.  As Steve Smith, former Dean of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College said, "We have way too many people believing they're doing something correctly, and they're not.  The strength in the current clown organizations and the scores of available conventions is that there is information to be gotten.  The problem is that a lot of it is wrong."

            A lot of misinformation, particularly about clown history, continues to be circulated.  Even after accurate information is made available, the problem persists.  The reason for so much false information is that many clown instructors repeat what they have heard in classes without checking to verify if that is correct.

            Before somebody begins to teach a class in entertainment they should remember, "You aren't responsible for what you were taught, but you are responsible for what you teach."  What you learned in a class should not be taught until you have confirmed it either through your own experience or scholarship. 

            Copycat instructors not only steal the format and information for the class, they often are also guilty of violating the copyright law by illegally copying and distributing magazine articles. 

            Reprint rights to magazine articles are valuable.  Most variety arts magazines do not pay their contributors.  The way that the author is able to make writing the articles financially feasible is to collect them into reprint books or lecture notes for sale. Some of my lecture notes consist of magazine articles combined with new material.  I can justify the time and effort spent writing the articles because of the income I realize from selling the lecture notes makes that time profitable.  If you wish to continue having worthwhile magazine articles available to read, you need to support the authors by not stealing their property and giving it away free to your classes.


         Entertainers, as a group, should begin considering copying another person's idea what it really is, stealing property that belongs to them. Intellectual property is just as real as physical property. When we justify people stealing ideas we are allowing the art of entertainment in general to stagnate and deteriorate. On the other hand, when we encourage and support creativity we allow the art of entertainment to grow and thrive.

            If you are tempted to steal another person's idea, remember that ultimately you are hurting yourself the most.

        Excerpted from Creativity For Entertainers Volume One: The Creative Process, by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

        Copyright © 2005 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

        For more information on Creativity For Entertainers Volume One, click here.

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