It’s been a while since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Will Smith plays a West Philadelphia transplant who moves in with his well-to-do Uncle’s family in the California neighborhood of the same name, was on the air.
One of the many hilarious bits in the show is the eponymous “Carlton Dance,” where Smith’s otherwise-uptight cousin lets loose in hilarious fashion.
Now, Alfonso Ribiero, the actor who played Carlton, is suing Epic Games, creators of the game Fortnite, for allegedly copying the dance.
Comparing the two, they seem almost identical. There’s a case to be made that the game’s creators “copied” the dance.
Dance moves, along with jokes and magic tricks, are often used as examples of content that can’t be copyrighted.
However, because the dance combines a number of moves, has been recorded countless times, and is recognized as originating from Fresh Prince, it may well be eligible for monopoly protection since it has been “notated or recorded.” (Ribiero is in the process of registering for the copyright.) For example, when a contestant on Dancing With the Stars wanted to do a performance in the style of West Side Story, she couldn’t use any of the specific choreography from the musical.
Putting aside law as it exists and the potential outcome of this litigation, the fact that our current system enabled such litigation, let alone the possibility that it might be successful, is a policy failure.
Monopoly protection was not necessary to bring this dance into creation. The economic (and Constitutional) justification for intellectual property is that it is necessary to secure monopoly rights to cover the upfront costs of innovation. There’s simply no evidence this was the case here (Fresh Prince is copyrighted, enabling those involved in production to be compensated handsomely for their work.)
Other pro-IP schools of thought independent of the economic justification exist, such as the idea that ideas are essential to one’s personality, and thus must be protected. Fair enough, but if Ribiero was so irked by the fact that he wasn’t given credit (even though it was “immediately recognized” as his signature move), there’s a far less restrictive option available: mandatory attribution. A simple disclaimer “some content was provided by Alfonso Ribiero” would suffice to give him the credit he is seeking.
In fact, the mod that includes the dance is called “fresh,” a reference to the show.
The only upside of Ribiero prevailing in court would be that it provides another example of the absurdity that is our current copyright regime.