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Copyright in Dance

By Christopher Connolly

Parris Goebel with dancers in the video for Justin Bieber’s Sorry. Credit: The Palace Dance Studio.

Testament to how fluid an art it is, there’s little legislation around copyright in dance. Copy a song or a poem and you would be subject to legal action. Copy a dance and it’s not so simple.

Dance is based largely on two aspects; choreography and technique. Choreography is defined as the art of movement. Technique; the physicality of movement. Structure can be seen throughout art, most notably the words of a piece of literature or in a verse of music. The problem is, in more ‘abstract’ arts, such as dance and visual, the ‘art’ and ‘technique’ can seem entwined and harder to separate.

Ask 10 people on the street what the most popular cultural dance move of the past 100 years is and most will say the Moonwalk. It’s so synonymous with the late entertainer Michael Jackson, but the move dates back way before MJ. Video footage shows variations of the Moonwalk by tap dancer Bill Bailey in 1955 and arguably Cab Calloway in 1932. Now video is everywhere; Television, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook. This shines a whole new importance on copyright in dance. Video exposure increases copycats whilst simultaneously increasing the reach of dance in a tentatively balanced, double edged sword.

More than ever before, this issue is prominent in today’s industry with the conversation reaching Aotearoa’s mainstream media. In 2016, choreographer Parris Goebel was criticised online after allegedly using Jamaican dancehall moves in the video for Justin Bieber’s hit Sorry, seen over 3 billion times on YouTube. Parris defended herself by claiming the use was because of her love for the genre. With social media making the sharing of any popular dance so readily available, increasing the chance to monetise, this issue is only set to compound.

Fortnite, one of the most financially successful video games in history has been sued well over half a dozen times due to allegedly stealing dance moves from independent artists. The lawsuits claim the game’s publisher Epic broke copyright law by turning dance moves into gameplay avatar animations.

Copyrights of this nature would threaten monopolisation of pop-culture by the huge media players who already control much of the landscape. The US Copyright Office rejects ‘social dances’ not designed for professional artists, plus “short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps”. But who stands to lose more?

Earning royalties could be the missing jigsaw piece in our eternally underfunded and under-appreciated industry, providing much needed finances to independent artists, choreographers and artistic directors. It is time our artists started getting paid for their art after all.

The subcultures of social dances are often the spark that lights the fire in the hearts of children, which may result in a lifelong passion for dance. Legal framework could prevent these important opportunities from ever happening. So although the idea of royalties seems fair and, overall, positive, it could result in one step forward, two steps back for dance.

Then there is the question of ‘how’? How could you copyright artistic expression when dance’s blurred boundaries of creativity cannot easily be recorded? It would likely involve some form of movement mapping software to track and sort routines. A computer-based algorithm measuring variables such as; stage movement, order of movements, body positioning and then calculating the % of duplication with similar recorded dance routines.

As that software is yet to be created, dance copyright will still rely on human interpretation for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the difficulty and lack of precedent are the prohibiting factors to why original artists aren’t reaping financial compensation from those making commercial success from copying their work.

Finally, the most powerful argument for introducing such legislation might be this: imagine a future where artists are the main financial benefiter of their own art. This money would be used to increase regularity of creation and the level of what’s being created. In turn this increases audiences and the money that comes back into dance. Increased audiences mean dance has a larger reach and higher profile. In that world, dance becomes a significant socio-cultural art contributing to the country’s economy, the same way the film industry does, for example. Perhaps then dance will be appreciated as it should.

Maybe that’s a pipe dream for the time being, but copyright issues are a conversation that will repeatedly come up and increase in regularity over the coming years. How will it change the industry? Only time will tell. It always does.



Copyright in Dance

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