The Tricky Business of Choreography Copyright

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker accused Beyoncé of stealing her work for her 2011 "Countdown" video. The pop star's reps said it was an homage to the Belgian choreographer.

A high school dance team tournament in Minnesota is making headlines because of allegations of plagiarism against the winning team—and how everybody else handled it.

In October 2014, DT ran the story “Copying Choreography” on drawing the line between inspiration and plagiarism. One of the main takeaways? That plagiarizing is really tough to do definitively, because it’s largely subjective. Even the attorney we consulted told us it’s a matter of the movement in the new work being “substantially similar” to the original piece. But who’s to say what “substantially” means? Borrowing themes is allowed, as well as props and even music.

In this case, the coach of the winning Faribault Emeralds dance team freely acknowledges taking inspiration from a different team’s 2013 routine. But she says she was careful not to use more than about four seconds of similar movement at a time. There is no time minimum, however, on copied movement. As attorney Julia Haye put it for us:

“The technical moves themselves are like words for an author. When you put a series of words together, they become paragraphs and therefore copyrightable. For example, everyone might be doing à la seconde turns into leaps, but are they then rolling out of that and into the same stylistic moves? It doesn’t even have to be exactly the same, it just has to be substantially similar for there to be copyright infringement.”

So in this case, it’s possible there was some legitimate copyright infringement, though there’s still the question of how “substantially similar” moves need to be, to be considered plagiarism. The five other teams in the championship competition protested Faribault’s first-place victory by remaining on the sidelines and refusing to line up for the awards ceremony. They were all disqualified for poor sportsmanship.

In “Copying Choreography,” we discussed the different options for handling suspected choreography theft: Speak to the judges privately, take (possibly costly) legal action or…let it go and move on. Involving the students in the interaction is not typically recommended, and in this case it backfired for everyone involved.

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