The Carlton Not Elaborate Enough for Copyright Protection

By Stacey Dunn

The US Copyright Office has rejected “The Carlton” dance from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a choreographed routine worthy of copyright protection. While instantly recognizable for decades, the US Copyright Office says that The Carlton is merely a “simple routine that is not registrable as a choreographic work”. In coming to this conclusion, the Copyright Office detailed the dance in cringe-worthy detail, stating that the

dancer sways their hips as they step from side to side, while swinging their arms in an exaggerated manner. 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.

Such detail may be required for a Copyright Office decision; but, of course, most know the dance:

https://giphy.com/explore/carlton-dance

The US Copyright Office’s refusal raises questions of copyright protection in Canada. Would The Carlton be protectable as a “choreographic work”, a subsection of “dramatic work”, under the Copyright Act? Unfortunately, the Copyright Act offers no guidance as to what may be covered, barely elaborating to define a choreographic work to include “any work of choreography, whether or not it has any story line”. A choregraphed dance that is fixated and original may be covered under the Copyright Act, but there is very little Canadian case law to elaborate on how complex a dance must be to constitute a choreographic work.

In FWS Joint Sports Claimants v. Canada (Copyright Board) ([1992] 1 FC 487), the Court held that playing a sports game cannot be a choreographic work “because, unlike a dance, a sporting event is for the most part a random series of events. The unpredictability of the action is inconsistent with the concept of choreography”. In Pastor v Chen (2002 BCPC 0169), a case where a dance instructor sued his former dance student for teaching the instructor’s version of a Cuban form of Salsa called “La Rueda”, the Court held that the “uniquely choreographed moves and dance styles” were covered by copyright. However, the dance was extremely complex, requiring a minimum of three couples and each move is done by a “call” from the leader. Furthermore, the instructor was successful on the basis of a breach of confidentiality agreement and the Court’s comments regarding copyright in the dance were merely in obiter.

The question remains as to how elaborate a dance must be to constitute a choreographic work in Canada; however, similarly to the US, something as simple as The Carlton may not warrant protection in Canada.

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