Performers take on video game maker over dance moves.
Performers sue video game maker over dancing avatars’ moves.
In 1973, performer Hugo Zacchini sued Scripps-Howard Broadcasting after one of its news programs aired his entire act on television — an act in which he shot himself out of a cannon at an Ohio county fair and landed in a net 200 feet away.
The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in his favor, saying, essentially, that if someone could watch the whole thing on television, why would they bother to get off the couch and see it in person?
Today, a new set of cases is nudging the legal boundaries of who controls certain performances. This dispute centers on dancing avatars in “Fortnite Battle Royale,” one of the biggest video games in the world, and whether the moves they do are owned by somebody else.
Three performers have sued Epic Games, which makes “Fortnite,” an addictive, money-minting juggernaut of a survival game where players fight it out to stay alive while they kill everybody else. The game is free to download, but players purchase add-ons as they go along, including a rotating offering of dance moves called “emotes.”
Among those moves, according to the complaints, filed beginning in December in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is an enthusiastic back-and-forth arm-swinging motion that looks just like the Floss, a speedy little dance created by Russell Horning, a teenager from Lawrenceville, Georgia, who goes by the name Backpack Kid.
There is also a snappy number called Fresh that looks uncannily like the Carlton Dance done by Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor who played Carlton on the show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
And there is a swishy-swaying motion, which the complaint says is identical to the Milly Rock, created by rapper 2 Milly.
“People book me, they pay me to come perform the song and do the dance,” 2 Milly said in an interview. “They’re stealing from me.”
Ribeiro, 2 Milly and Backpack Kid’s mother (on his behalf) are suing Epic Games for copyright infringement. They are also suing Take-Two Interactive Software, maker of the NBA 2K games, which also allow players to buy the dances.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, David L. Hecht, said that his firm has spoken with a “significant number” of people about bringing similar claims and that he has hired a team of people, mostly in their 20s, to play video games for him as research.
Epic Games said it would not comment on ongoing litigation. Take-Two did not respond to a request for comment.
The companies have not yet filed their defenses in court, though they are likely to argue that the dance moves cannot be copyrighted. The lawsuits are among several recent cases testing copyright laws that were written in a vastly different technological age. Indeed, as digital animation has become richly vivid and detailed, even who owns the rights to tattoos drawn on athletes’ bodies has become an issue in sports video games.
But while there is plenty of case law regarding the copyrighting of songs and written works, there is far less in the record regarding choreography. One case several years ago involved Bikram Choudhury, the now-disgraced yoga instructor, who tried to copyright a “hot yoga” sequence as a choreographic work. He lost.
Several intellectual property lawyers suggested there have not been a lot of choreography cases because there is not a lot of money in choreography.
And while they were tickled by the “Fortnite” cases (“’Fortnite’ meets ‘Flossing,’ it’s the perfect storm of things!” said Jeanne Fromer, a professor at New York University School of Law), they were generally pessimistic about the lawsuits’ chances.
When deciding if a dance is eligible for copyright, courts look at a combination of factors, including its level of creativity, its complexity or length, and whether the work was independently created. You can’t copyright a musical note or a word, for example, but string enough of them together and you’ve got a song you can own. Individual dance steps are likewise not copyrightable, according to the copyright office’s rule book. And the dances targeted in “Fortnite” are all quite short.
Hecht argues that what’s used in “Fortnite” are “the most identifiable, signature aspects of those original performances.” The fact that the dances are available individually for specific prices — about $8 for the Fresh and $5 for the Floss, according to the complaints — makes their sale especially egregious, according to Hecht.
Even if a dance is deemed long enough, there are other hurdles. For example, the U.S. Copyright Office will not register what it calls a social dance, like ballroom dancing or break dancing.
Thomas Kadri, a resident fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, said that if “Fortnite” has copied moves, “it does strike me as a little unfair.”
But if every move could be copyrighted, he said, it could stifle the creation of new work: “It becomes very difficult when every building block of culture becomes somebody’s property in a way that can exclude people from using it.”
A “Fortnite” character dances. Three performers are suing the makers of the video game “Fortnite,” saying it is selling their dance moves without their permission.