Jon M. Philipson reflects upon a recent denial by the U.S. Copyright Office
Contrary to the perceptions of many children of the ‘90s, the “Carlton Dance”, in the eyes of the United States Copyright Office, is merely “a simple routine made up of three dance steps, the first of which is popularly known as ‘The Carlton.’” As such, the United States Copyright Office denied Alfonso Ribeiro’s (a/k/a Carlton Banks of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) application to register a copyright claim in the dance. The January 22, 2019 Office’s letter became public in a recent filing involving a suit filed by Ribeiro.
The Office explained that for a choreographic work to be registrable, it must be “a composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive whole.” As well, the work must contain a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship. However, choreographic works do not include social dance steps and simple routines.
Turning to the Carlton Dance, the Office found the dancer “sway[ing] [his] hips as [he] step[s] from side to side, while swinging [his] arms in an exaggerated manner,” then “tak[ing] two steps to each side while opening and closing [his] legs and [his] arms in unison,” and concluding with his feet still, as he lowers one hand from above his head to the middle of his chest while fluttering his fingers to be a “simple routine that is not registerable as a choreographic work.”
Despite crushing many fans of the popular move that populated ‘90s high school dances, the inability to register his dance routine may weaken two suits Ribeiro is pursuing against two gaming studios for alleged use of the dance in video games NBA 2K and Fortnite.
Beyond the implications for Ribeiro’s lawsuits, the Office’s recent letter raises more concerns for other popular dance moves from the ‘90s; i.e., The Sprain (Saved By the Bell), Elaine’s Dance (Seinfeld), The Routine (Friends), and of course, Chris Farley’s Chippendales’ Dance (Saturday Night Live).
On a more somber note, this decision raises serious questions for artists, who through their creativity, develop unique, pop-culture defining expressions: When can these expressions be protected? When created in a collaborative setting, who owns the rights to that expression? Are there multiple authors?
Only time will tell.
Jon M. Philipson is an attorney in the Tampa office of Thomas & LoCicero. He advocates for and advises clients with complex litigation and counseling needs, drawing on skills and experiences acquired in the private and public sectors. With extensive federal government and public policy sector experience, Jon applies deep practical knowledge to his client’s federal and state court litigation needs.