Is the “Carlton Dance” Copyrightable?

The U.S. Copyright Office says “No”.

Alfonso Ribeiro, better known as Carlton Banks on the 90s hit show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, wants his dance. In a Fresh Prince episode, Carlton performed the dance to Tom Jones song “It’s Not Unusual.” In 2014, Ribeiro performed the dance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. A lawsuit ensued however, when Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. (creator of NBA 2K series) and Epic Games Inc. (developers of Fortnite) used the dance in their video games.

So why is the use of the “Carlton Dance” in video games a problem?

Ribeiro asserts the “companies have ‘unfairly profited’ from using his likeness and from exploiting his ‘protected creative expression.’” In 2018, the video game Fortnite did bring the company $3 billion in profits. It is likely Ribeiro wants a piece of the profit. As for his “protected creative expression,” the “Carlton Dance” falls short of such protection. Saskia Florence, a supervisory registration specialist in the Office’s Performing Arts Division claimed registration must be refused because his claimed “choreographic work” was instead a “simple dance routine” unable to be registered.

Also, Ribeiro’s right of ownership is left unsatisfied. Ribeiro asserted the “Carlton” was created for the Fresh Prince episode owned by NBC. How can Ribeiro claim ownership of a valid copyright if he alleges the dance was created for an episode owned by NBC? Take-Two’s attorneys said Ribeiro, “did not try to register that ‘Dance’ with the Copyright Office- presumably because he knows that he does not own the copyright.” The fact Ribeiro was performing the dance while under contract with NBC does not strengthen Ribeiro’s position.

Additionally, Ribiero is not the only person to file suit against video game makers for use of dance moves. BlocBoy JB, 2 Milly, and the Backpack Kid also sued Fortnite for similar dance move use. The company’s response? As stated in the company’s brief, “copyright law is clear that individual dance steps and simple dance routines are not protected by copyright, but rather are building blocks of free expression, which are in the public domain for choreographers, dancers, and the general public to use, perform, and enjoy.” For Ribeiro’s matter, the U.S. Copyright Office agreed with this notion. The result—the “Carlton” cannot be copyrighted.


Feds tell Alfonso Ribeiro he can’t copyright ‘Carlton’ moves


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