Can a Dance be Copyrighted?

By: Scaringi Law Attorney Brian C. Caffrey

Understanding Which of Your Creative Ideas Are Protectable

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Alfonso Ribeiro made headlines in 2018 when he moved to sue hit games Fortnite and NBA 2K for using his signature dance to customize in-game characters without his permission. “The Carlton,” which debuted on an episode of the show back in 1991, has become a classic move and a go-to for dancers everywhere. Clearly, these developers saw the popularity of it and sought to bring that excitement into their products.

The companies argued that the dances were too simplistic to warrant a copyright protection. The Copyright Office even refused Ribeiro’s attempt to register his dance, stating it was just one move as opposed to a complex choreographed number. In addition, there was question regarding whether Ribeiro would even be the owner of the copyright if it could be protected, as it was created while working for a show. Eventually, Ribeiro voluntarily dismissed the suit against Epic Games.

The case wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, to call the ownership of viral moves into question. Social media influencers have maintained an unwavering focus on coming up with dance challenges, watching with fascination as their steps get repeated by users around the world. What protections could one seek for these routines?

Requirements to Copyright a Dance

Dances may be protected so long as they are an arrangement of movements that are:

  • Your own original work
  • Recorded either in a video, detailed instructive text, or some other tangible way

You do not, however have to include any narrative component for a dance to be eligible for a copyright. Additionally, there is no requirement saying that the dance must be performed in front of an audience to garner protection.

When a dance is copyrighted, that creator has the exclusive right to perform the dance, prepare derivative works based on the dance, and make, sell, and distribute recorded performances of performances.

When the Protection Begins

A qualifying choreographed routine is granted protection immediately upon the dance’s creation and recording. So, a dance isn’t protected simply once it’s performed. It must be noted in some tangible way.

This protection is granted without even registering with the copyright office and will last for the creator’s life and 70 years thereafter.

Why You Should Register a Copyright

Though unnecessary for basic protections, registering a copyright affords key advantages to the creator. By registering your copyright, you:

  • Create a record of your copyright ownership
  • Can seek statutory damages in a copyright lawsuit
  • Can seek attorney fees in a copyright lawsuit

The process to register your copyright is fairly simple. You must provide the copyright office with:

  • An application submitted online or by mail
  • A $35 filing fee for online applications or a $65 filing fee for mailed applications
  • A copy or copies of your dance

Modern Applications

Although a single move like “The Carlton” cannot be protected, longer works could. If you create a dance on TikTok or Instagram, for example, you can file for a copyright, as you’ve made and recorded an original piece. While these dance challenges are done in good fun now, we could see a rise in dance-related copyright infringement cases if copiers start to earn some sort of profit by remaking them.

Contact Scaringi Law for more information regarding copyright law and how we can help you protect your intellectual property.


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