Written by attorney Elena Y. Volkova |

The Business of Choreography: The Relationship between Copyright and Dance

by Tyler Jaramillo and Roizin & Volkova Law Group PLLC

Copyright is a powerful tool for protecting works of art. As an art form, choreographed dance and movement often goes unprotected. Copyright protection is overlooked in the world of choreography, largely because there is a custom of sharing movement. Sharing choreography allows new styles to develop.

Choreography continues to go unprotected because of the belief that copyright would limit the custom of sharing thereby undermining the art form itself. This tension reflects the tension between supporting ownership and public access that is inherent in any copyright discussion.

Copyright is particularly well suited for choreography for the following reasons: copyright supports the sharing of ideas and provides broad protection in a global economy.

For example, take a choreographer who prepares phrases for the dance class she teaches weekly. Other dancers and choreographers attend her class and learn her choreography. The goal of the class is to present new choreography for the class attendees to learn. When the attendees leave they take the memory of the choreography with them. The choreography taught in class is an example of expression, and copyright protects expression.

Copyright only protects expression and does not protect ideas, methods (i.e. Pilates), processes or dance moves (like a plié in ballet for example). In the situation above, a dancer who took the choreographer’s class is not infringing if she uses a movement learned in the class in a new piece. Conversely, if the dancer uses an entire copyrighted dance there is a violation of copyright.

Aside from protecting expression, copyright is also important because it allows a copyright owner to protect her work from unauthorized copying, performance or display and establishes ownership on a broad level. In a globalized arena performances and displays occur online and copyright registration means federal and international protection.

Registration also allows the copyright owner to profit from performing her dance piece or by allowing others to perform it. Returning to the example above, if a dancer wanted to perform one of the choreographer’s pieces (assuming the choreography was copyrighted) she would have to pay the choreographer for the privilege. The dancer would not have to pay the choreographer to use or perform the choreography she learned while attending class.

In this way, copyright protection respects the distinction between incorporating material learned in class into a new work and performing an entire piece without permission. Choreographers, dance and exercise institutions, and the like should not miss the opportunity to protect choreography.

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