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Fortnite Carlton dance lawsuit hits copyright speed bump

Alfonso Ribeiro's suit against 2K and Epic Games over the use of his character's dance from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is facing a pretty significant obstacle. The US Copyright Office has refused his copyright registration.

Like 2 Milly, Backpack Kid and Orange Shirt Kid, Ribeiro is suing the publishers over emotes featured in Fortnite and the NBA 2K series, but choreography ownership is murkier than music copyright, and even more so in Ribeiro's case, where the dance was created for a TV show. 

Since 'The Carlton' wasn't already copyrighted, Ribeiro and his lawyers first had to register with the US Copyright Office. The copyright has been denied, however, "because the work submitted for registration is a simple dance routine," according to a letter uploaded by the Hollywood Reporter (cheers, Eurogamer).

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For copyright purposes, there's a distinction between a dance and a choreographed work, and for a dance to be considered the latter, it needs a sufficient amount of original authorship. The US Copyright Office determined that the three-step dance, though it may have had some original authorship, didn't contain enough to make it a choreographed work.

Epic and 2K's law firm made note of the copyright rejection and called for a dismissal. "[I]ndividual dance steps and simple dance routines made up of multiple steps are building blocks of free expression, and they are not copyrightable," Kirkland & Ellis' Dale Cendali wrote in their defence. 

While Epic and 2K are not capitulating, Microsoft and Playground Games did remove the emotes from Forza Horizon 4, which includes a number of well-known dances. Microsoft wasn't involved in the legal action, however, so it was pre-emptive. 

It seems like, at the very least, Ribeiro and the other creators would need to have protected dances before they could start claiming they'd been pinched, and without that, it's hard to imagine how the claim could go forward. A great number of emotes inspired by real dances have appeared in games, however, and some of them arguably more distinct and complicated than Ribeiro's, so this doesn't necessarily mean an end to these legal battles. 

Fraser Brown

Fraser is the UK online editor and has actually met The Internet in person. With over a decade of experience, he's been around the block a few times, serving as a freelancer, news editor and prolific reviewer. Strategy games have been a 30-year-long obsession, from tiny RTSs to sprawling political sims, and he never turns down the chance to rave about Total War or Crusader Kings. He's also been known to set up shop in the latest MMO and likes to wind down with an endlessly deep, systemic RPG. These days, when he's not editing, he can usually be found writing features that are 1,000 words too long. He thinks labradoodles are the best dogs but doesn't get to write about them much.