Not Even Carlton Can Copyright the 'Carlton Dance'

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 20, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You know the Carlton Dance. And if you don't, here you go:

Actor Alfonso Ribeiro made the moves world famous on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in the early 90s, but it turns out he can't copyright his own creation. Why not?

Simple Steps

The issue came to light after two video games, NBA 2K and Fortnite incorporated the Carlton Dance into player celebrations. Ribeiro filed copyright infringement lawsuits against the games' makers, Take-Two Interactive and Epic Games, respectively, and also filed an application with the U.S. Copyright Office for the dance, presumably to strengthen those legal claims. But the Office's Performing Arts Division rejected the application, ruling that The Carlton was a "simple dance routine" and not a "choreographic work" as required for copyright protection.

"The dancer sways their hips as they step from side to side, while swinging their arms in an exaggerated manner," wrote Registration Specialist Saskia Florence. "In the second dance step, the dancer takes two steps to each side while opening and closing their legs and their arms in unison. In the final step, the dancer's feet are still and they lower one hand from above their head to the middle of their chest while fluttering their fingers. The combination of these three dance steps is a simple routine that is not registrable as a choreographic work."

Whose Dance?

There's also the question of whether Ribeiro, and not "Fresh Prince" broadcaster NBC, would be the owner of the dance's copyright, if it could in fact be protected. "The copyright notice for the episode in which it first appeared ... lists solely 'National Broadcasting Company, Inc.'," according to Take Two's Motion to Dismiss. "Thus, Plaintiff's copyright claims fail as his allegation that the 'Dance' was created for an episode owned by NBC means that he has not plausibly alleged ownership of a valid copyright."

Fortnite was also accused of swiping rapper 2 Milly's Milly Rock dance last year, a lawsuit that may face the same uphill battle as Ribeiro's.

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