Open Source Vs. Intellectual Property in Juggling: An Opinion Piece

There are plenty of disagreements within the juggling world. For instance, some jugglers live for siteswaps while others argue that they have little relevance within performance, saying that non-jugglers can’t differentiate between most patterns. Today I want to share my thoughts about another area of controversy – the debate over whether creative ideas (props, routines, etc.) should be open source, for all jugglers to learn and incorporate, or if the creators should own the intellectual property and have exclusive rights to their creations.

This is not a new issue. Kara, the famed gentlemen juggler, invented the Kara Box, which you can see him doing in the following photos from the late 1800s / early 1900s. You can also read more about the Kara Box by clicking here.

Michael Kara and his Kara Box

However, other jugglers quickly copied Kara’s invention, as you can see from the following photo of the juggler Resa.


Another early innovator was William Everhart, who invented the entire genre of hoop juggling and rolling. You can click here to read about Everhart.

William Everhart

Everhart gained a lot of fame from his invention of hoop juggling and rolling, but he was quickly copied by numerous other jugglers and acts, such as the Gregory Troupe, the Alpha Troupe, the Nichols – Nelson Troupe, the Renners, and many others. This massive amount of competition quickly diluted Everhart’s fame and asking price for performances. The only act that asked Everhart’s permission and paid him a royalty fee was Ollie Young and Brothers.

Ollie Young and Brothers

A third turn-of-the-century juggler with an original creation was Salerno, who is best remembered for creating the Salerno Ring. The Salerno Ring is a large ring / hoop attached to a pole which is balanced on the juggler’s head. A ball is rotated in a track inside the ring and is kept in motion by the juggler moving his body up and down. The juggler then juggles balls through the center of the ring without disturbing the rotating ball.

Salerno and his Salerno Ring

Salerno’s biggest rival, Kara, also performed the Salerno Ring. However, Kara was not only given permission to do so by Salerno, but Salerno actually gave him the prop, along with many other props, to help Kara re-establish his career after being released as a prisoner of war at the end of World War I.

Kara performing the Salerno Ring

And so we have early examples of jugglers performing innovations created by other jugglers, and doing so by either stealing their ideas, performing them as a result of a contractual agreement with payment, or through permission with no strings attached. There are certainly other examples of early copying, such as Frank Le Dent gaining far more fame and fortune for the “Dancing Hats” than the genre’s inventor, Paul La Croix, ever did. Another career-defining early invention was Mac Sovereign’s angled diabolo bouncing invention, which was invented in 1907 and soon copied by others.

Now, I want to clarify that this discussion is not talking about individual tricks with common props. If you invent a new trick with any normal juggling prop, it is going to be pretty much impossible to claim sole use of that trick. But, I can’t think of an example where a juggler’s career hinged on a single trick. What I believe should be protected are original props, genre’s, and acts. These are “big ideas.”  Let’s take a look at some famous examples of these “big ideas” and how they have been copied by other jugglers.

Michael Moschen developed many original moves/tricks in what we now call contact juggling. While he wasn’t the first to roll balls over his body, he did move the art form ahead a great deal. Michael took great exception at others copying his work. While it is difficult to defend someone performing his original tricks, it’s certainly true that many simply copied his act at first. I even know a juggler local to me that learned and performed pretty much an exact copy of Moschen’s crystal ball act. This certainly should never have been done.

A similar argument can be made regarding Kris Kremo’s act. While the elements of Kris’ act have been around for decades before Kris was born, developed by his father as well as others, such as Stetson, there have been jugglers who have copied Kremo’s act trick for trick, even going so far as to use his music. This should never be supported within the entertainment world.

Going back to Michael Moschen, another of his creations that has been copied and stolen is the bounce triangle. This is an invention that is synonymous with Mr. Moschen. Yet a number of jugglers have copied the triangle without permission and made it a huge part of their acts.

Another career-defining invention was Daniel Menendez’s bounce piano. It has been copied numerous times and even the best-known part of one juggler’s act. Yet the only juggler who has obtained permission and compensated Daniel for using the incredible idea is Niels Duinker.

Greg Kennedy has created many original props and acts. The two most copied are his ball bounce V work, which he calls Orthogonal, and his ball rolling act that takes place in a cone. which took him over 3000 hours of research and practice to develop. Greg once told me that he doesn’t mind others doing the bounce V act, but the same is not true for the cone act. This makes my point that it should be up to the inventor to decide whether their creations are free to use or not.

I’m well aware that many in the juggling community disagree with me regarding intellectual property within the art. Luke Burrage has even made a video arguing for the opposite side the argument, which you can watch below.

I, however, believe that it’s unethical for other jugglers  to treat material that is not theirs as open source. Juggling tricks are easy to learn. There are very, very few jugglers in the world who could create a trick that was so difficult that some other highly skilled juggler couldn’t learn it in a week. But great, original ideas are extremely rare and difficult to create. Moschen’s triangle, Menendez’s bounce piano, Kennedy’s Cone, and other “big ideas” are ideas that can make a career. To have someone come along and steal it is criminal in my mind. If a juggler doesn’t care or makes it open source, more power to them. But they should get to make that decision.

Anyone can sing a song, but only one person will write it. If you want to perform or record it, you need to get permission and/or pay. When a juggler is dead or retired and hasn’t passed the act down to someone, then sure, learn it and develop it to your heart’s content. But taking someone’s valuable and rare idea and depriving them of the opportunity to uniquely perform it is just wrong.

Going back to the music analogy, every song you hear on the radio uses notes, rhythms, and chord progressions that have been around for decades and words that all of us know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an original song. The problem with juggling is that it’s difficult to monetize it. Unlike magic, you can’t just package up and sell a new trick when anyone with balls, rings, and clubs can see it and start to work on it with what they already have. So when someone creates something new that has substantial performance value, I believe we as a community need to allow that creator to reap the benefits of their creativity. Again, I’m not talking about a single trick with common props. I’m talking about bigger ideas (new props, routines, and acts).

It’s easy to steal a bounce piano or Michael Karas’ pendulum apparatus act. You don’t need to put in a decade of time. You just have to build the prop and take a little time to learn the act. In comedy, it’s super, super easy to steal jokes. So comedians police their community and call out those that do. I just feel that we need to foster creativity by rewarding those who are doing the creating by helping to protect their big ideas. If someone wants to learn something different, look back through history. Find something that hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. But don’t steal the livelihood of our peers who are just trying to make a living. They may only have one great idea in their lifetimes. It’s a shame to deprive them of whatever gains they can get out of their creations.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 16 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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