Our art form could be killed off by a common legal maneuver.
Why? Because there's growing attention being paid to copyright and dance.
When you think of copyright, what comes to mind?
Most likely, you think of creative works such as books, movies, and music. But did you know that some choreographers want to copyright their dance moves?
Could this be good for the industry?
Dance is an art form that can be incredibly expressive, and it can be used to communicate ideas and emotions in a way that words cannot. It can also be incredibly challenging. It can take years of practice to perfect.
But, dance is something that is often collaborative too – it is rare for a choreographer to create a piece entirely on their own. Even if they did, unless it is a self-solo piece, they are unable to complete the work without a dancer… which inevitably leads back to cooperation.
So copyrighting dance?
What gives? In other words, how's that even possible? Why would anyone want to do it?
In a lot of cases, it can be difficult to understand someone's actions without knowing their motivations. For example, if your friend cancels on you at the last minute, it can be frustrating if you don't know why. Was it something you said or did? Or was there a more serious reason, like an emergency?
So to answer the question of why some dancers are moving towards copyright let's understand one hard truth about the industry.
Professional dancers are like professional athletes
Dancers are like professional athletes. Athletes train hard for years to get the chance to turn pro. For dancers, their moves need to be practiced and perfected in order to look their best. This also takes years. And most dancers, like most professional athletes, have short careers that can be shortened by injury.
While the combined audiences for athletic events can be in the millions– TV, Live, and Online– for dance performances the audiences are way smaller. Consequently, dancers don't get anywhere near the financial compensation of athletes.
In the arts, dancers can often experience injuries that can leave them without work and uncompensated for months. But, dancers (unwisely) continue to dance because they love it. The passion and discipline required to be a successful dancer is admirable. And, while the monetary compensation may not always be there, the satisfaction of a job well done is.
But you cannot eat "satisfaction". And if it is the way you make your living, you may feel you have no choice.
On top of that, while trying to make a name for themselves, many times dancers do not receive any credit for their performances, especially in the commercial dance world.
Is trying to protect work new?
Dancers have been trying to protect their work for years, but there has been a recent resurgence of interest with choreographers like JaQuel Knight (Beyonce's Single Ladies) being one high-profile case. Changes in the industry mean that many dancers are no longer able to make a living wage from dance alone.
While there is still plenty of work for choreographers, YouTube has made it much easier to repeat that work. Additionally, YouTube has another sting in its' tail for choreographers. Choreographers can now promote their work more easily, but so can others who may not have the same level of skill or understanding of the art form. So they 'borrow' ideas and online video makes it easier than ever to take someone else's work and pass it off as your own.
This is where copyright law comes in.
What is copyrighting?
Copyright is a form of protection that allows an individual or company to protect their creative works from being copied or used without permission. In order to qualify for copyright protection, the work must be original and meet certain other requirements. Copyright registration is not required, but it can provide some advantages, such as the ability to sue for infringement.
The act of copyrighting is registering your work with the government. This gives you certain exclusive rights to the use of your work for a set amount of time.
It can be a difficult process to take one's ideas and make them into something that can be copyrighted, but it is not impossible. Copyright protects a creators original expression and can bring some standards and financial stability to the industry.
Having said that, choreography has been copyrightable in the US since 1978, however, there has only been one case that has gone to court on this issue. That case was about photos of Balanchine's Nutcracker. So far, movement has not been challenged in court.
Can you copyright the Alphabet?
What is particularly concerning is the desire to protect dance 'moves'.
In order for choreographers to copyright their moves, they would need to prove that the move is both new and original. Some would argue that copyrighting dance moves wouldn't stifle creativity. On the contrary, others argue that it would encourage choreographers to be more creative and to come up with new and innovative moves that cannot be copied. They feel that this is good for both the dancers and the choreographers, as it keeps the art form fresh and evolving.
What even constitutes a new move? There are painfully few. Moreover these true innovations expand the art form. Streetdance, locking in particular, wouldn't exist without the new move called the lock. If it were copyrighted then locking, as a dance form, may never have taken off… or ballet, or Irish dance, etc.
So, in a lot of ways, trying to copyright a move is like trying to copyright the alphabet. It's an essential part of the language. How it can't be owned by anyone? You can't just stop people from using the alphabet, can you?
Just like you cannot create words without letters you cannot create dance without 'moves'.
No matter how creative we are, there is a limit to how many 'moves' can exist.
My first ballet teacher, Kathryn Irey, taught us that there are only five things we can do with our legs.
- Jump from one foot to the same foot.
- Jump from one foot to the other.
- Jump from one foot to two feet.
- Jump from two feet to one foot.
- Jump from two feet to two feet.
There are no other options.
There may be infinite possibilities for how those five things can be combined but the number of possible moves is finite.
Walking and running are both ways of going from one foot to the other, as is grand jetè. Rivoltade is just a cool way of jumping from one foot to the same foot… as is the 540.
Dancers should be allowed to copyright their work.
Choreographers should be able to copyright their choreography because they put a lot of work into them and they deserve to be compensated for that. The US Copyright Office allows choreographers to protect certain types of dances, such as ballets.
Just as a writer would want to be compensated for the use of their signature work, so too should a choreographer be able to protect the work they have put into their dances.
Copyrighting 'moves' would kill our art
I draw the line at "moves"
If we can't use the alphabet, how can we write? If we can't use the moves, how can we dance?
Does Jaquel Knight's choreography really contain unique moves never before seen?
Jaquel Knights choreography for 'Single Ladies' inspired millions of people and hundreds if not thousands of dancers and choreographers. But isn't it the combination of the music, the direction, the filming, costuming, and the choreography that inspired? Though the final work may have been unique, the moves, perhaps, weren't. Didn't Fosse and Gwen Verdon's choreography (Whatever Lola wants in Damn Yankees https://youtu.be/aQv2sq6jEhU?t=169) predate and portend elements of Single Ladies?
Moreover, if people could've copyrighted moves over the centuries, what would have happened to ballet without Pas De Boureé?
What would Locking be without "The Lock"?
What would Jazz dance be without the Shimmy?
Moves are essential parts of our art form and trying to copyright them would kill them. We should not own letters, we should not own words and we should not own moves.
I do believe that original move creators should find some means of being compensated or rewarded, but I'm not sure that restrictive use is the right way.
Let's protect our art by using copyright law to protect choreography, but let's not forget what makes it so special… it's not the moves. It's the choreographer's gift of renewing the meaning of the moves.
So what do you think? Is copyrighting dance moves a good way to protect the art form? Or does it go against everything that dance is about?
Let us know in the comments below!
Update: I have just learned that Knight’s copyright request was granted……..