Why Fortnite's Dance Animations Are a Can-of-Worms Copyright Problem
Online video game Fortnite is involved in serious controversy over its "emotes" dance feature. Even if you're not a gamer, this is a case choreographers should keep close tabs on. Here's why.
Let us quickly introduce you to Fortnite Battle Royale: The video game sprung up in September 2017 and has grown to insane levels of popularity. It's free to play and features 100 users duking it out to be the last person standing. But here's the catch: If you want to get ahead, you have to make in-game purchases, trading real money for V-Bucks, which you use to redeem things like weapons.
So what's it got to do with dance? A whole lot. One of Fortnite's most popular—and lucrative—features is its emotes, animated dances that users can purchase to perform on the battlefield. Many are taken directly from pop culture, and Fortnite's developer, Epic Games, is in the midst of a heated lawsuit regarding its Swipe It emote. After much public debate, rapper 2 Milly filed a suit last week claiming that Epic Games stole—and is now largely profiting from—the Milly Rock, a dance move he created and popularized, without his permission. Take a look:
Here's the Swipe It, as seen in Fortnite...
...and this is the original Milly Rock
Same dance. Epic Games knows this much, or they wouldn't have opted to make this super-popular dance move into an emote. More emote purchases equals more revenue. So much that, according to Business Insider, in May 2018 Fortnite made upwards of $318 million in revenue from in-game purchases. That's more than any video game on any platform ever.
Cultural Appropriation and Copyright Issues
2 Milly isn't the only artist whose signature move has shown up on Fortnite. Though you may not know this dance's name, you've probably seen it. The Shoot was originated by rapper BlocBoy JB. On Fortnite, it's called the Hype.
Members of the black community have spoken out about these lifted dance moves, and Chance the Rapper suggested a solution: Let samples of the artists' songs accompany the emotes, so the artists will receive some of the profits.
Does it raise issues of cultural appropriation? Absolutely. And we believe that all artists' work should be credited and respected. But are these dance moves covered under copyright? As the laws are currently set up, no.
We did some research on the U.S. Copyright Office's regulations regarding individual moves, and the info is pretty clear and surprisingly easy to find.
Individual movements or dance steps by themselves are not copyrightable, such as the basic waltz step, the hustle step, the grapevine, or the second position in classical ballet. The U.S. Copyright Office cannot register short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.
Based on these stipulations, 2 Milly's case may not hold up in court. That doesn't mean what Epic Games is doing is right.
What about Public Domain?
Fortnite also features dance steps (some decades old) that gained a foothold in pop culture: the Charleston (called the Flapper in the game), the Worm, this move from Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" video (renamed the Tidy). There's also Carleton's famously goofy dance from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" ("Fresh" in Fortnite) and an emote called Groove Jam, a take on Napoleon Dynamite's nerdy get-down in the comedic movie.
It begs the question: At what point does a social dance become so normalized, that no one flinches to see it? Because individual movements can't be copyrighted, it's not like they have an expiry date (like music) when they slip into the public domain.
A Win for Choreographers
There is one instance where a choreographer successfully took Epic Games to task. In January 2017, Gabby J. David posted the above YouTube video of herself dancing to a remix of Migos' "Bad and Boujee." She later noticed that Fortnite copied her choreography for its Electro Shuffle emote and contacted them. As of January 2018, the two parties were settling. Though no specific details are available, Electro Shuffle remains in the game.
Why did David have a stronger case? Fortnite lifted about 10 seconds of her own choreography, and choreography has a different set of copyright protections.
With today's rapidly evolving technology, where things are easily sharable and monetizable, it might be time to revamp the Copyright Office's laws for individual dance moves.
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Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
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So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
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Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
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I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
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We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
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The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.