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Choreography Copyright Case Against Epic Games Rebooted With First-of-Its-Kind Ruling

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A federal appeals court issued a first-of-its-kind ruling Wednesday (Nov. 1) on copyright protections for dance routines, reviving a case that accuses Fortnite creator Epic Games of stealing copyrighted moves from a celebrity choreographer who’s worked with BTS, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears.

In a “novel” ruling on “one of the oldest forms of human expression,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a decision last year that dismissed choreographer Kyle Hanagami’s lawsuit, which claimed that Epic stole his dance moves and used them as “emotes” in Fortnite.

A lower court had tossed the case by ruling that Epic had copied only several unprotected “poses” from Hanagami’s routine. But in Wednesday’s decision, the appeals court said dance copyrights should be analyzed more holistically, more similarly to how courts dissect copyrighted music.

“We see no reason to treat choreography differently,” the court wrote. “Reducing choreography to ‘poses’ would be akin to reducing music to just ‘notes.’ Choreography is, by definition, a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole. The relationship between those movements and patterns, and the choreographer’s creative approach of composing and arranging them together, is what defines the work. The element of ‘poses,’ on its own, is simply not dynamic enough to capture the full range of creative expression of a choreographic work.”

The ruling does not mean Hanagami has won the lawsuit; instead, the appeals court merely said that the lower court should not have automatically dismissed the case. The two sides will now return to the lower court for more proceedings, potentially including an eventual trial.

A spokeswoman for Epic Games declined to comment on the decision.

In a statement to Billboard, Hanagami’s attorney David Hecht celebrated a ruling that he said would be “extremely impactful for the rights of choreographers, and other creatives, in the age of short form digital media.”

“Our client looks forward to litigating his claims against Epic and he is happy to have opened the door for other choreographers and creatives to protect their livelihood,” Hecht said.

Hanagami sued last year, claiming that Epic had copied a dance routine he created to a Charlie Puth song and used it without permission as the basis for a Fortnite “emote” — a pre-programmed dance move that players can purchase from Epic and employ using their digital avatars. He called it “intentional misappropriation” of his “fame and hard work.”

Attorneys for Hanagami compared the two dances as part of their legal filings:

The case was one of many filed in recent years over the use of dance moves in games. Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor who played Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, sued Epic over the use of his heavily-memed “Carlton dance” as an emote, as did the mother of the so-called Backpack Kid who popularized the viral “Floss” dance. But those cases have faced skeptical judges in court: In 2020, a federal judge sided with Epic and tossed out a case filed by two former college basketball players over their “running man” dance.

In August 2022, Hanagami’s case faced the same fate. Siding with Epic, Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that the individual steps of his dance routine were too basic for copyright protection, and that even when combined together, they were just a “short” routine that couldn’t be covered by copyright law.

But on Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit overturned that decision, ruling that the lower court had unfairly focused on those simple “poses” and had ignored other elements of the “selection and arrangement” that Hanagami claimed Epic had copied. When those elements are all considered together, the appeals court said, his case becomes “plausible” enough to proceed toward trial.

“He has plausibly alleged that the creative choices he made in selecting and arranging elements of the choreography — the movement of the limbs, movement of the hands and fingers, head and shoulder movement, and tempo — are substantially similar to the choices Epic made in creating the emote,” the court wrote.

The ruling sends the case back to Judge Wilson’s court, where the two sides will engage in more litigation. Eventually, Epic will again seek to dismiss the case; if that fails, the lawsuit will head to a jury trial.

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