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Lawsuits for wealthy dance undermine copyright and culture



Fortnite is one of the most popular and profitable video games in history, and its publisher Epic copies creative works of children and independent artists without paying them. It is not surprising then that seven people sued the company, claiming that Epic had infringed copyright law by transforming their dance moves into Fortnite emotes. These lawsuits explore a new and interesting legal territory. But if they succeed, it could be bad for the dance, for the copyright and for the culture that these lawsuits apparently try to protect.

For those who do not know FortniteEmotes are short avatar animations that players can buy or win. Like other cosmetic items in the game, they are often fun because they are familiar. You can get generic acrobatic moves or hand pumps, but also emotes based on Saturday night fever dance or the meme "Salt Bae". And in an increasing number of lawsuits, people who have inspired emotes – like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Star Alfonso Ribeiro and rapper 2 Milly claim that Epic has violated their copyright.



Beyond the big ethical questions, it is a difficult legal argument. The US Copyright Office rejects "short dance routines with only a few moves or steps", as well as "social dances" that are not designed for qualified professional performers. (Although some of the lawsuits involve dances with recorded copyrights, they seem to cover larger sequences rather than a single gesture.) But the experts do not dismiss it completely because there is no a lot of case law covering video game dances.

If a court ruled against Epic, it would actually mean that someone can copyright a sequence of movements lasting a few seconds, and then prevent anyone from executing them and recording them without paying royalties. And it's a very big problem.

In this context, viral dance trends such as dab can become a legal chasm – as can the challenges based on specific songs. Most of the complaints would probably not come from individual artists, but from conglomerates like Viacom, Sony or Disney, who own huge amounts of the pop culture landscape. To the extent that it's not too difficult to create a single dance step, a troll ghost industry could even qualify for a wide range of physical moves, then arm them during the Super Bowl halftime shows. or during any other big public dance show.

If dance movements are defended as severely as songs, Internet companies will likely have to control unauthorized dances, as they may be held responsible for copyright infringement by users. At its extreme extreme, it would mean that YouTube adds something like a motion analysis function to its content identification system, using automatic learning to eliminate downloads in search of illicit moonwalk . Viral stars would use application services such as CollabDRM to record the copyright of gestures or distinctive dances, in order to claim royalties from anyone copying their movements.

We have already seen the drawbacks of the extensive copyright rules online: automated systems accidentally reported white noise or bird song as an offense, viral videos were disconnected for using unauthorized audio clips, and the hustlers used copyright to extort YouTubers. It can be quite difficult to determine when it is legal to rebroadcast a copyright-protected image directly – let alone imitate the physical movement of another person for a few seconds, either by recording your physical body or by that animation for a virtual avatar.



And even more than memes or folk songs, dance moves often evolve with the help of a whole subculture. The last Fortnite For example, the trial is about the "Running Man" dance, described as the unique creation of two former basketball players from the University of Maryland. But other people have retraced the stage of the New Jersey clubs. It is unlikely that an official "owner" has sued the gamblers for copyright infringement – but if some people end up having legal control of a community effort, it would discourage this. type of collaborative creation. In the long run, copyright may even be detrimental to cultural preservation efforts because it makes legally difficult copying of media.

A company selling a signature dance of the artist is not ethically equivalent to a YouTuber imitating John Travolta. Law on intellectual property at used to protect small creators – he helped people hiding behind two famous cats on the Internet get compensation after Warner Bros. had used their creations in a game And beyond the money, Epic's actions raise serious and significant questions about the right to appropriate elements of a culture. Critics argued that Fortnite emotes are unethical dances that divorce from their original context and erase the work of artists (especially black artists, who have filed the majority of these lawsuits), even s & # They are legally defensible.

But none of this justifies extending our current copyright protections – which are easy to use, can last more than a century, and sometimes even make no sense for digital media. – to cover something as basic as a dance step. In the end, the history of copyright law suggests that these policies are unlikely to be used to help communities whose work is being exploited by Epic. They will simply help other businesses transform even more pieces of shared culture into private property.


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