It’s 1975 and you’re on the A train heading to Brooklyn, New York to see a friend. The subway is covered in graffiti and as your train gets delayed for the second time, DJ Lean Rock’s “Sneak Peak” is blaring from a boombox and a group of b-boys start breaking in the middle of the train. If that scene was happening today riders would either blankly stare out the window and ignore the chaotic scene in front of them or grab their phones and post the moves on Instagram with hopes that their New York moment could lead to some IG clout. Hip Hop and dancing has been synonymous within the culture since the late 70s when the genre originated in the Bronx. Legends like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Sugar Gang Hill and DJ Africa Bambaattaa were a part of a collective of artists that wanted to use the foundation of Funk, Disco and R&B to create music for a new era of ears. Hip Hop has evolved to be the most influential genre in the world and with that influence artists are creating movements behind their music and dance moves but most aren’t getting fairly paid for these viral dances that top the charts and line the pockets of record labels and video game developers (Have you heard of Fortnite?).
Alfonso Ribeiro best known for his role on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air as Carlton and viral rap star 2 Milly began building a case against Epic Games back in December 2018 for utilizing their signature moves for the lucrative emotes that can be used when playing Fortnite. Creator of Fortnite and CEO of Epic Tim Sweeney generated $7.2 billion in 2018 and with emotes updated daily and ranging in price from $5-10, the monetization of the next hip hop dance is inevitable. According to TMZ Ribeiro’s request to secure the rights to the Carlton dance was denied due to his moves amounting to nothing more than a “simple dance routine”. Fortnite’s “Fresh” emote which bites the signature Alfonso move debuted at the beginning of this year and similar to 2 Milly’s “Milly Rock” dance quickly gained popularity. When it came to Milly’s case Epic Games lawyers urged the judge on the case to dismiss the lawsuit due to individual dance steps not being protected by copyright law.
Even though both cases didn’t lead to a dance move registration victory for either artist, future viral hit makers can learn from Alfonso Riberio and 2 Milly mistakes. First off, throwing a couple dance steps together over a trap beat and attempting to turn it into a copyright will never work in an artist’s favor. The law doesn’t care about the millions of views or how well your single charts on Billboard. Dances need to contain certain “elements of choreography“. This can include: “A series of dance movements or patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive compositional whole, a story, conveyed through movement and a performance by skilled individuals.” So Beyonce couldn’t trademark her signature “oh, oh” dance from “Crazy In Love”, but she could turn her polished choreography that she does at all of her tours into a copyright that Fortnite or any other brand looking to capitalize off of artists work couldn’t touch. Aside from creating choreography from dance moves, artists should also look into utilizing AR and VR to turn their moves into a lucrative IP. For example established football players can receive licensing deals from Electronic Arts so their likeness and moves can be used for the Madden franchise.
Artists have had to find creative ways to expand their wealth beyond unreasonable record deals and receiving small percentages of revenue for the sales of their music. From partnerships with brands, merchandise, recording and distributing music independently and utilizing their money to invest in other companies; the more savvy an artist is about their work will lead to more ownership over the art they create. While both lawsuits are still active without registration approval, Riberio and Milly will need to get creative if they want to stop Fortnite from profiting off of their work in the future. The odds of them winning seem bleak but let this misstep be a lesson for other artists. Don’t settle for social media clout and a few checks to value your work. Find a way to truly own everything you do and stop culture vultures from profiting off of the culture.
Article By: Marcel “The Messenger” Jeremiah