By Robert Milligan and summer associate Alana Friedman

Production companies for Criss Angel, the star of Cirque de Soleil’s “Believe” and the A&E cable television show Mindfreak, were sued in New York state court recently by a twenty-three year old illusionist who claims that Angel’s companies have failed to pay him for the use of three alleged confidential and proprietary magic tricks that he claims that he created. 

Jacob Spinney’s eight count complaint arises out of an alleged breach of contract involving certain confidential and proprietary magic tricks (e.g. methods of staging and performing three specific illusions or magical effects) that he claims to have permitted Angel to use pursuant to a written contract. Spinney claims that Angel failed to satisfy his end of an agreement that they purportedly entered in 2005. Pursuant to the alleged agreement, Spinney purportedly assigned the rights in three of his magical effects to Angel’s production company in exchange for a percentage of the net profits realized from the magical effects. Spinney is now seeking monetary compensation and for all rights to be returned to him on two of the three illusions.

Spinney, who allegedly makes his living by selling illusions and magical effects that he originates and creates, claims that in late 2004 Criss Angel (whose real name is Christopher Sarantakos) contacted him expressing interest in performing Spinney’s Chair Self-Levitation illusion where the performer appears to be floating above the ground. Spinney claims that Angel was interested in the illusion for his upcoming television series Mindfreak. In the 2005 Agreement which result from Angel’s alleged inquiry, Spinney claims that he assigned the rights in his confidential and proprietary magical tricks entitled Chair Self-Levitation, Chair Self-Suspension (performer appears to be suspended above the ground), and Fork Bending Gimmick (performer appears to bend a fork without exerting any physical pressure upon it) to Angel’s production company in exchange for 25% of the profits that it derived from the magical effects. 

Spinney alleges that he invented, designed, and tested the method of performing all three illusions. He claims that levitation, suspension, and fork bending illusions or magical effects are valuable commodities in the magic industry because they are difficult to create and have significant audience appeal.

Their 2005 Agreement provides that “In the field of magic, a magician’s success depends upon the secrecy of the methods, apparatus, and workings of magical effects and illusions; and…a magician creates and establishes his reputation based upon the originality and novelty of the various magical illusions which are proprietary information, intellectual property and proprietary technologies, and constitute a trade secret.” 

Spinney alleges that Angel performed the Chair Self-Levitation on the second episode of his Mindfreak television series which was later broadcast on the A&E Network and included on four separate Mindfreak DVDs. According to the complaint, Angel’s production company publicized the Chair Self-Levitation illusion as Angel’s most popular demonstration and featured the illusion on “Masterminds Volume 2: Self-Levitation,” a “how to” DVD featuring only the Chair Self-Levitation illusion. Spinney further alleges that the packaging on the Mastermind DVD advertised that “Criss teaches everything you need to know about this modern day miracle; step by step instructions on the method, how to construct it…and how to perform it.” Spinney claims that the Mastermind DVD retailed for $100 and sold over 3,900 copies in its first six months, grossing over $190,000 in profits. 

Spinney alleges that despite the 2005 Agreement, Angel’s production companies did not pay Spinney any royalties from profits it made from the Mindfreak television show or DVDs and paid him only a small portion of the royalties from profits it made on the Mastermind DVDs. According to the complaint, the DVDs made approximately $267,000 in gross sales and Spinney received only $27,000. 

Spinney also claims that his Chair Self-Levitation illusion is proprietary information, intellectual property and proprietary technology, and constitutes a trade secret. He further claims that Angel’s production companies benefited from learning the confidential and proprietary methods of performing the illusion by deriving profits from certain performances and by excluding others from marketing or selling the illusion. He claims that he has suffered a detriment because he was not adequately compensated for the illusion and continues to be precluded from marketing or selling the effect on his own or through alternative means.

Additionally, Spinney alleges that Angel’s production companies failed to make reasonable efforts to sell Spinney’s Chair Self-Suspension or Fork Bending Gimmick pursuant to the 2005 Agreement. Spinney seeks lost profits for the failure to sell or market the two illusions, an amount equal to the fair market value for the illusions, or a judgment returning to him the rights in both.

Apart from its unique and colorful facts, the case highlights some of the issues that exist when confidential information or trade secrets are licensed, such as: 1) ensuring that a reasonable royalty is provided in the agreement with clear definitions of permitted use and payment terms; 2) including language in the agreement providing that the licensee agrees to keep the secrets confidential notwithstanding its use in the ultimate product or service; 3) requiring the licensee to use best efforts to market and sell the ultimate product or service if payment under the agreement is tied to sales; 4) closely monitoring sales of the ultimate product or service in the marketplace to ensure that all royalty payments are made; 5) licensors should consider using a flat fee amount for use of the confidential information and/or trade secrets in lieu or in addition to royalty payments; 6) licensors should closely protect the confidentiality of the target confidential information or trade secrets in the negotiation process with prospective licensees; and 7) the licensor should prohibit independent development of the target confidential information or trade secrets by the licensee in the agreement.