When I was recently asked whether someone could procure copyright protection for a TikTok dance, it got me thinking and so I decided to write this article on what I found based on my research.
Under US Copyright Law, a dance created by a choreographer or dancer is considered a creative work that can be granted copyright protection if: (i) it is an original work; (ii) it is a coherent whole (i.e., not just individual movements); and (iii) if it is fixed in a tangible medium (e.g., written illustration of the dance steps and movements or a video recording of the dance).
When someone creates a choreographed dance on a platform such as TikTok, that creation just might be eligible for copyright protection. However, simple dance routines - like an end zone celebratory dance or a series of yoga positions - have been deemed not protectable under copyright law. Basic dance moves or simple routines cannot be copyrighted separately, but a creator can copyright a dance as long as it is an original work which consists of the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole. All of the dance moves which constitute the choreographic work must be described with enough detail so that the work can be consistently performed. Most protectable choreographic works are usually those which are intended to be executed by skilled performers in front of an audience, such as a ballet or a modern dance routine.
In most cases that TikTok dance probably falls into the non-protectable category, unless there is a sufficient combination of body movement, spatial movements and coordination with musical accompaniment such that the social media dance would be protectable. Protection is more likely if the performance is by a skilled dancer, is for the entertainment of others (i.e., not for others to mimic for their own enjoyment) and involves a discernable storyline or theme.
Choreographic works are afforded the same exclusive rights as any other copyrighted work so, once protected, it would be copyright infringement and the basis for legal action if someone without legal authorization publicly performs the choreograph work or adapts, distributes or reproduces the work. When a dance is deemed copyrightable then copyright accrues from the time it is fixed in a tangible medium or expression (written or recorded) and lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Registration is not required for protection, but registering early grants additional protections and is required before the author can commence legal action in court. If a video was posted online that you believe infringes on your copyright, your first step should be to request that the offending video be removed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, the digital service provider can restore the material if the alleged infringer sends a counter-notice explaining why the material is non-infringing – which then leaves the copyright claimant for the choreographic work with no alternative but to file a lawsuit against the alleged infringer as the last resort to protect the copyright.
Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer specializing in entertainment, copyright, trademark and internet law. He was a teenage recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School. www.wallacecollins.com