Just before the start of the long weekend, the U.S. Copyright Office denied Alfonso Ribiero, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Carlton, a copyright to his signature “Carlton Dance.” While more complicated choreography is copyrightable, simple dance moves are not.
The Office defines choreography as the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive whole. By definition, choreography is a subset of dance, and the U.S. Copyright Office may only register a choreographic work if it contains a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship….However, the term “choreography” is not synonymous with “dance.” When drafting the current copyright law, Congress made it clear that it did not intend to protect all forms of dance or movement, specifically stating that ‘”choreographic works’ do not include social dance steps and simple routines.”…Additionally, “[i]ndividual movements or dance steps by themselves are not copyrightable, such as the basic waltz step, the hustle step, the grapevine, or the second position in ballet.”
After the 1976 Copyright Act, creators could officially copyright choreography (even though this was possible before 1976, it was registered as something else, like part of a drama).
This is good news for those who want to use the dance, such as the creators (and players) of the game Fortnite. Even so, the fact that our current system gives a sense of entitlement to the creators of even the most minor (but nonetheless hilarious) creative works is a serious flaw in our current system.
Beyond narrowing the scope of copyrightable material, one potential solution would be to bring back mandatory registration of copyright on the front-end, so there is more clarity on who owns the right to what. Remember, the Copyright Office rejected Ribiero’s claim on the grounds that it wasn’t copyrightable, not because the dance has been in existence for almost 30 years.
Just for fun, read the U.S. Copyright Office’s serious description of a silly dance:
The dancer sways their hips as they step from side to side, while swinging their arms in an exaggerated manner. In the second dance step, the dancer takes two steps to each side while opening and closing their legs and their arms in unison. In the final step, the dancer’s feet are still and they lower one hand from above their head to the middle of their chest while fluttering their fingers.