Carlton Dance Cannot Receive Copyright, According to US Copyright Office

Why is the Carlton Dance ineligible for copyright protection?

Fans of the 1990’s TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” will surely remember the iconic “Carlton Dance.”  Throughout the series, character Carlton, played by actor Alfonso Ribeiro, would break out into a dance involving swaying his arms and hips enthusiastically.  Recently, the popular videogame Fortnite started offering the Carlton Dance as an option for its avatars to perform.  Mr. Ribeiro filed suit against Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, claiming that his dance should be protected and use of it by Epic Games constitutes copyright infringement

Carlton Dance Too Simple for Protection 

In weighing the matter, the U.S. Copyright Office did not agree that the Carlton Dance was entitled to protection. The government office stated that the dance was too simple and not complex enough to warrant protection.  The dance can be considered equivalent to a word or short phrase.  Per the copyright office, words or short phrases are not eligible for copyright protection.  Similarly, the dance, which repeats two basic motions, is the equivalent of a repeating phrase and thus cannot be protected.  

The copyright office’s opinion does not necessarily mean the end of the road for Mr. Ribeiro.  Courts are free to make their own decisions regarding whether theft of intellectual property has occurred.  The court reviewing the matter will take the copyright office’s opinion into consideration.  Mr. Ribeiro’s attorney has stated that he intends to ask the copyright office to reconsider the issue.  He urges that even if the individual moves are simple, the arrangement of these moves should be considered complex enough to consider the dance a choreographic work.

For now, the matter will remain before the court.  The decision of the courts on the Carlton Dance could have wider implications because Fortnite is using more and more well-known dances for its avatars to perform. Mr. Ribeiro is just one of many potential artists who may file suit against Epic Games and other video game makers who may use the dances or other recognizable moves from actors and dancers alike.