This is fantastic news. I am reading the 31 page decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal right now and will learn the 4 counts along with the full emote dance for a split screen video. It is amazing that courts are finally starting to recognize that a 2 second sequence is not too short to deserve copyright protection and cause liability when commercially used without permission. When you copy someone’s moves without permission for profit, you will be on the hook. And no, I don’t believe that this case will curb the use of dance moves in video games. Certainly not at the stage of dismissal and prior to a jury verdict. On the contrary. Emotes are the most commercially viable feature of Fortnite and the game would be irrelevant without them.
This is the video that was used in court to prove the identical similarity between the original routine and the moves copied by Epic Games.
I personally don’t play Fortnite or any other video game using gun violence and allowing for the murder of innocent civilians (that’s the majority of games unfortunately), since I am against gun violence in real life too. Something tells me that playing violent games is a form of indirect consent to wars and violence, so I carefully avoid engaging with entertainment that depicts assault, battery, homicide, misogyny, and homophobia. The metaverse is no exception. Zero tolerance for violence. However, I do dance to Fortnite emotes I encounter on Tik Tok (so long as there are no guns involved). So I will dance to this routine as well.
I note in the US there is the practice to “register” copyright before filing a lawsuit, however registration is not proof of ownership, but rather a formality that can create a rebuttable presumption (prima facie evidence) of ownership if done in the 5 years of first publication1. A Youtube video of a filmed choreography (prior to defendant’s use) and anything else with a valid time-stamp of a filmed process is actual proof, for example a series of user generated or fan videos of the original choreography posted on a platform like Youtube or Tik Tok after first publication and prior to the commercial use by defendant. Vimeo can’t be used in court in this way because it allows users to replace existing videos with more recent ones and keep the initial post date and engagement. As for Youtube and Tik Tok, even private and unlisted videos may qualify.
So this case is now going to trial, unless it settles (which it most certainly will).
My Initial Highlights (this will provide a good overview of dance jurisprudence in the US, there is none in Canada although statutory protections exist in the Copyright Act)
Dance is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Recognition of dance as a form of copyrightable subject matter, however, is a far more recent development. While early versions of the Copyright Act extended statutory protection to dramatic works and musical compositions, dance long remained outside the purview of copyright law. In 1976, Congress for the first time extended explicit copyright protection to “choreographic works,” bringing dance in line with the other performing arts. Nonetheless, the field of choreography copyright has remained a largely undefined area of law. Few courts have had occasion to consider the scope of copyright protections for choreographic works.
To prevail on a claim of copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show that his original work and the allegedly infringing work are “substantially similar.” […] The dispute in this case thus turns on how to properly apply the substantial similarity test in the context of choreographic works to determine whether Hanagami has plausibly alleged that his choreographic work and Epic’s emote are substantially similar.
The district court erred in its application of the substantial similarity test as Hanagami plausibly alleged that his choreography and Epic’s emote share substantial similarities. We thus reverse and remand for further proceedings.
Emotes are animated movements or dances that players use in celebration of a victory or during virtual concerts. The cost of an emote varies from 200 V-Bucks to 800 V-Bucks, depending on how “rare” the emote is considered within the game.
A video of the “It’s Complicated” emote, as performed by an avatar in Fortnite’s marketplace, is available online. See Insane broz, It’s Complicated Emote | Fortnite – Battle Royale, YouTube (Mar. 31, 2020)].
In this action, Hanagami alleges that Epic’s “It’s Complicated” emote infringes Hanagami’s Registered Choreography. Relevant to this appeal, Hanagami brings claims for direct copyright infringement and contributory copyright infringement.
The district court determined that the overall “steps” Epic allegedly copied—which the court described as “a two- second combination of eight bodily movements, set to four beats of music”—were not protectable under the Copyright Act because they were only a “small component” of Hanagami’s work.
The court, having concluded that the dance steps were not protectable on their own, then concluded that Hanagami was entitled to protection “only for the way the Steps are expressed in his Registered Choreography” as a whole, “i.e., in the entire five-minute work.”
We review de novo a district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6). See Wilson v. Lynch, 835 F.3d 1083, 1090 (9th Cir. 2016). When reviewing the complaint, we take all allegations of material fact as true “and decide whether the complaint articulates ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Starz Ent., LLC v. MGM Domestic Television Distrib., LLC, 39 F.4th 1236, 1239 (9th Cir. 2022) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).
- The 1976 Act does not define the term “choreography,” and Congress left little clue about what it might mean. See Bikram’s Yoga Coll. of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, 803 F.3d 1032, 1043 (9th Cir. 2015). Indeed, Congress considered the term “choreographic work” to have a “fairly settled” meaning. Id. (citing H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at 53 (1976)). On this point, the legislative history explains that Congress found it unnecessary to “specify that ‘choreographic works’ do not include social dance steps and simple routines.”
- Although more than forty years have passed since the 1976 Act’s enactment, few courts have addressed federal copyright protections for choreographic works. […] The most famous case in this area is Horgan v. Macmillan, Inc., in which the Second Circuit considered whether photographs of a ballet could infringe the copyright on the choreography of the ballet. 789 F.2d at 158. In that case, Macmillan published a book of color photographs of the New York City Ballet Company’s production of The Nutcracker. The book portrayed, through text and photos, the story and history of The Nutcracker ballet. Id. The estate of George Balanchine, who famously choreographed the production, sued for copyright infringement. Id. at 158. The district court found that Macmillan had not infringed the copyright for the ballet because the photographs did not capture “the flow” of the dancer’s steps and “[t]he staged performance could not be recreated” from the photographs. Id. at 160.
- In appeal, the Second Circuit reversed and remanded, concluding that the district court erroneously held that still photographs could not infringe a choreographic work. To reach this conclusion, the Second Circuit looked to the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices (“Compendium II”) as persuasive authority. Notably, the Second Circuit quoted the definition of “choreography” in the Compendium II, which described the term as “the composition and arrangement of dance movements and patterns.” Id. at 161 (quoting U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices § 450.01 (2d ed. 1984) (Compendium II)).
The Compendium is a manual published by the Copyright Office. It provides instruction to agency staff and guidance to the general public on the Copyright Office’s requirements, regulations, and legal interpretations.
- The Second Circuit addressed another choreography copyright claim in Martha Graham School & Dance Found., Inc. v. Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc., 466 F.3d 97 (2d Cir. 2006). There, the court considered a dispute over which entity was the rightful owner of choreographic works produced by the famous dancer Martha Graham. The court held that there was sufficient evidence to establish that Graham had assigned copyrights to the dances to her foundation, but it did not reach the underlying question of copyright infringement, nor did it elaborate on the definition or characteristics of a choreographic work.
The Compendium outlines several elements that choreographic works typically contain, “although the presence or absence of a given element is not determinative of whether a particular dance constitutes choreography.” Id. § 805.2. These features include “rhythmic movement in a defined space,” “compositional arrangement,” “musical or textual accompaniment,” “dramatic content,” “presentation before an audience,” and “execution by skilled performers.” Id. § 805.2(A)–(F)
The Compendium does not draw a bright line distinction between copyrightable choreography and uncopyrightable dance; instead, there is a continuum on which “[m]any works fall somewhere in between.” Id. § 805.5(B). Still, there are limitations on what types of movements are copyrightable as choreography.
“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.” Id. § 805.5(A). Nor will the Copyright Office register “short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if the routine is novel or distinctive.” Id. Individual dance elements “are not copyrightable for the same reason that individual words, numbers, notes, colors, or shapes are not protected”—they are the “building blocks of choreographic expression” from which all choreographic works are built. Id.
Our circuit uses a two-part test to assess substantial similarity. The first part, known as the “extrinsic test,” “assesses the objective similarities of the two works, focusing only on the protectable elements of the plaintiff’s expression.” Rentmeester, 883 F.3d. at 1118 (citing Cavalier v. Random House, Inc., 297 F.3d 815, 822 (9th Cir. 2002)). The second part, referred to as the “intrinsic test,” “test[s] for similarity of expression from the standpoint of the ordinary reasonable observer, with no expert assistance.” Jada Toys, Inc. v. Mattel, Inc., 518 F.3d 628, 637 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 35 F.3d 1435, 1442 (9th Cir.1994)). District courts apply only the extrinsic test at the pleadings stage, “as the intrinsic test is reserved exclusively for the trier of fact.” Williams v. Gaye, 895 F.3d 1106, 1119 (9th Cir. 2018). The district court’s application of the extrinsic test is the primary issue on appeal.
We agree with Hanagami. The district court’s approach of reducing choreography to “poses” is fundamentally at odds with the way we analyze copyright claims for other art forms, like musical compositions. We reverse and remand to the district court on this basis.
a. The district court erred in analyzing the elements of choreography. To apply the extrinsic test, courts must first distinguish between protectable and unprotectable elements, and “ask only whether the protect[a]ble elements in two works are substantially similar.” L.A. Printex Indus. Inc. v. Aeropostale, Inc., 676 F.3d 841, 849 (9th Cir. 2012). This process is referred to as “filtering.” See, e.g., Williams, 895 F.3d at 1117.
But we have long recognized that “[c]ertain types of works can be dissected into protected and unprotected elements more readily than others.” Rentmeester, 883 F.3d at 1119. For example, a photograph cannot be easily broken down into protected and unprotected elements because none of the “various creative choices the photographer made in composing the image—choices related to subject matter, pose, lighting, camera angle, depth of field, and the like” would receive “copyright protection when viewed in isolation.” Id. at 1119.
To account for this, we also employ a “selection and arrangement” approach to assess substantial similarity. This approach protects the “particular way in which the artistic elements form a coherent pattern, synthesis, or design.” Skidmore, 952 F.3d at 1074; see Swirsky v. Carey, 376 F.3d 841, 848 (9th Cir. 2004) (“[A] substantial similarity can be found in a combination of elements, even if those elements are individually unprotected.”).
Like other forms of copyrightable material, choreography is composed of various elements that are unprotectable when viewed in isolation. An individual, stand-alone dance movement, such as a plie, is equivalent to an “idea” that is not protectable by copyright. As a result, subsequent choreographers can use the same individual movements to produce new choreographic works of their own, as long as the new compositions are not substantially similar to the copyrighted work. Similarly, a choreographer cannot claim protection over the use of tempo, transitions, or rhythm in a choreographic work. The uncopyrightable elements of a dance instead function as “the building blocks for a choreographer’s expression, in much the same way that words and short phrases provide the basic material for writers.” Compendium § 805.4(D).
What is protectable is the choreographer’s “selection and arrangement of the [work’s] otherwise unprotected elements.” Cf. Rentmeester, 883 F.3d at 1120 (determining copyrightability of a photograph). Thus, while individual dance movements may not receive protection, their “[o]riginal selection, coordination, and arrangement . . . may be protect[a]ble expression.” See L.A. Printex, 676 F.3d at 849 (determining copyrightability of a floral textile design). Again, this approach is consistent with copyright in other contexts. See Metcalf v. Bocho, 294 F.3d 1069, 1074 (9th Cir. 2002) (explaining that individual musical notes are not protected but their arrangement may be), overruled on other grounds by Skidmore, 952 F.3d at 1051; Rentmeester, 883 F.3d at 1120 (explaining that individual elements of a photograph are not protected but their combined selection and arrangement may be).
We do not, however, have a “well-defined standard for assessing when similarity in selection and arrangement becomes ‘substantial,’” largely because it is a fact-driven and context-dependent inquiry. Rentmeester, 883 F.3d at 1121. We have suggested generally that the “selection and arrangement of elements must be similar enough that ‘the ordinary observer, unless he set out to detect the disparities, would be disposed to overlook them.’” Id. (citing Peter Pan Fabrics, Inc. v. Martin Weiner Corp., 274 F.2d 487, 489 (2d Cir. 1960)).
The district court correctly recognized that choreography falls within a selection-and-arrangement framework, but it erred at the first step of that analysis: breaking down the elements of the choreographic works.
The district court’s reduction of choreography to “poses” was particularly problematic because choreography is tied closely to movement. Static poses cannot possibly capture the flow of movement that is integral to choreography as a form of art. See Lakes at 1848 (noting that “movement itself is the choreographer’s means of expression . . . inher[ing] in how the choreographer progresses the dancers from position to position, not necessarily in the mere order of the positions themselves”).
We agree with Hanagami that “poses” are not the only relevant element underlying a choreographic work. Hanagami persuasively argues that there are several other “expressive element[s] present in choreography,” including “body position, body shape, body actions, transitions, use of space, timing, pauses, energy, canon, motif, contrast, [and] repetition.” These more discrete and technical elements are conceptually similar to elements we recognize in other copyright contexts, particularly the field of music.
In music copyright cases, we routinely dissect and analyze many musical elements, including “melody, harmony, rhythm, pitch, tempo, phrasing, structure, chord progressions, and lyrics.” Swirsky, 376 F.3d at 849 […] In Skidmore, for example, we considered a plaintiff’s allegations that the song Stairway to Heaven copied a combination of five musical elements from the plaintiff’s work: minor chromatic line and associated chords; duration of pitches of minor chromatic line; melody placed over the descending chromatic line consisting of combination of arpeggios and two-note sequences; rhythm of steady eighth note beats; and pitch collection. And in Williams, we assessed the combined presence of eight musical elements that plaintiffs claimed rendered the two songs substantially similar. 895 F.3d at 1117–18 (assessing alleged similarities between two songs, including the bass lines, keyboard parts, signature phrases, hooks, “Theme X,” bass melodies, word painting, and placement of the rap and “parlando” sections in the two songs); see also Three Boys Music Corp. v. Bolton, 212 F.3d 477, 485 (9th Cir. 2000)
In fact, we have held that it would be error for a district court to “disregard chord progression, key, tempo, rhythm, and genre” when assessing a musical chorus because “no approach can completely divorce pitch sequence and rhythm from harmonic chord progression, tempo, and key, and therefore support a conclusion that compositions are dissimilar as a matter of law.” Swirsky, 376 F.3d at 848.
We see no reason to treat choreography differently. To analogize from music to dance, reducing choreography to “poses” would be akin to reducing music to just “notes.” Choreography is, by definition, a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole. The relationship between those movements and patterns, and the choreographer’s creative approach of composing and arranging them together, is what defines the work. The element of “poses,” on its own, is simply not dynamic enough to capture the full range of creative expression of a choreographic work.
At the motion-to-dismiss stage, the court must only consider whether the plaintiff has plausibly alleged that the two works share substantial similarities.
Because the district court failed to assess the discrete combination of elements of the Registered Choreography, it erred in deciding as a matter of law at the motion-to-dismiss stage that the two works were not substantially similar. Taking the allegations in Hanagami’s complaint as true, he has plausibly alleged substantial similarity under the extrinsic test.
A plaintiff need not set forth detailed factual allegations about the elements of choreography to survive a motion to dismiss. See Malibu Textiles, Inc. v. Label Lane Int’l, Inc., 922 F.3d 946, 951 (9th Cir. 2019). The facts alleged in the complaint must simply “‘be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level’ and to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Id. at 951 (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 555, 570). Hanagami met this burden.
b. The district court erred in dismissing Hanagami’s claim because the choreography was “short” and a “small component” of Hanagami’s overall work. In addition to deciding that the poses in Hanagami’s choreography were unprotectable, the district court also reasoned that Hanagami could not claim protection over the allegedly copied “Steps” as a whole, which the court defined as “two seconds, four beats of music, or eight body positions, repeated ten times throughout the registered choreography.” The court emphasized that the four-count segment was not protectable because it comprised only a “small component” of Hanagami’s overall five-minute routine and was closer to an uncopyrightable “short” dance routine. We reject this conclusion for several reasons.
First, “no bright line rule exists as to what quantum of similarity is permitted before crossing into the realm of substantial similarity.” Baxter v. MCA, Inc., 812 F.2d 421, 425 (9th Cir. 1987). That means that, “[e]ven if a copied portion be relatively small in proportion to the entire work, if qualitatively important, the finder of fact may properly find substantial similarity.”
In Skidmore v. Zeppelin, for example, we held it was a jury question whether the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven were substantially similar to an eight-measure passage of the song Taurus. Skidmore, 952 F.3d at 1059; see also Baxter, 812 F.2d at 425 (rejecting the argument that a six-note sequence of a song would be unprotectable as a matter of law);
It appears that the allegedly copied portion is far more complex than other routines the Copyright Office has deemed uncopyrightable, like a “celebratory dance in the endzone” consisting of “a few movements of the legs, shoulders and arms,” or the gesture of using one’s arms to spell out the letters “USA.” Compendium § 805.5(A).
Hanagami plausibly alleged that the four-count portion is a complex, fast-paced series of patterns and movements that involves the whole body and is performed by highly-trained dancers. Even without the rest of the Registered Choreography, the Steps alone could satisfy many of the elements of a choreographic work as defined in the Compendium. See Compendium § 805.2(A)–(F). In any event, it is not up to us at this stage of the litigation to determine the complexity of the Steps. Further discovery and expert testimony may shed more light on this question.