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Beyonce accused of plagiarism for a dance number -- wait, can you copyright dance moves?

Beyonce can't seem to catch a break this year: Back in May, she was accused of pulling a little more than just a casual homage to Lorella Cuccarini with her VMA performance of "Run the World (Girls)," and now she's getting called out for copping dance moves from German choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in her video for "Countdown." While we're aware of the perils of plagiarizing songs and other media, we had no idea dance moves could be protected by copyright.

Here are the supposedly offending sections of the video, paired with De Keersmaeker's work. The similarities are pretty clear, but it still raises the question: Does it even matter? We've heard of plenty of musicians suing other musicians because they stole riffs or guitar chord sequences before, but dance moves?

The answer is yes, but with a few big caveats. Choreography wasn't even added into copyright law until the 1976 Copyright Act, as a form of "dramatic composition." So, like most art forms, choreography is protected by copyright if it's "fixed in any tangible medium of expression," which essentially means a recorded video.

Also like many art forms, choreography is interpreted and reinterpreted rather often, especially when it's put to the same music. And finally, as with other forms, the two pieces need to be deemed substantially similar in order to be considered in violation of copyright or plagiarized.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, that's where things get a little tricky. Dance moves, by their nature, are not copyrightable -- consider a single move the equivalent of a single chord on a guitar. That's why you don't hear about anyone getting rich off the two-step or their sweet new dubstep moves. However, when you put a series of chords together, they form a song, and in the same way, when a series of dance moves are put together, they form a choreographed number.

The problem here is that the entire "Countdown" video is essentially an homage, copping styles and moves from all over the place. The whole thing is a fair use nightmare, and as we know, artists can claim fair use of sampled (or repurposed) works if they fall under the following rules:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit education purposes.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
  • And the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Beyonce (or, rather, her choreographer) could claim they're using their version to make a statement on the original, or as an homage to it. Those claims might even stand up in court -- if this actually ends up in court. More important, Beyonce's usage of the dance routine has probably benefited De Keersmaeker more than harmed her, especially after people started taking notice of the similarities.

If this went to court, it'd be a tough battle and one the choreography scene hasn't seen before. While there have been plenty of cases of violating copyright in dancing, few have bothered with court. This particular case is more about whether Beyonce is simply committing a little cultural borrowing, or if the video is downright stealing. Considering the entire video is based on a cultural borrowing, it would be an easy argument against plagiarism; after all, she's liberally using a number of different sources to capture the feel of her video.

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Thorin Klosowski
Contact: Thorin Klosowski