The U.S. Copyright Office has dealt actor Alfonso Ribeiro a fresh blow in his lawsuits against two videogame makers’ use of his famous “Carlton Dance” from the TV show “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Ribeiro, who played a preppy foil to Will Smith’s streetwise joker on the show, says he created the dance for the series. His request to copyright the “Carlton” also included video of his performance of the move on “Dancing with the Stars.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, a supervisory registration specialist in the Office’s Performing Arts Division named Saskia Florence told Ribeiro’s attorney in a letter that registration of the “Carlton” was refused on the grounds that it was a “simple dance routine” and not a “choreographic work.” The latter, not the former, can be copyrighted.
The letter surfaced in California federal court, where the actor is suing both NBA 2K16 creator Take-Two Interactive and Fortnite maker Epic Games. The “Carlton” is featured in each game.
Florence noted that the “Carlton” can be simplified to three basic steps, the combination of which qualifies as “a simple routine that is not registerable as a choreographic work.” She also cited current copyright law, which does not “protect all forms of dance or movement, specifically stating that, ‘choreographic works’ do not include social dance steps and simple routines.”
The “Carlton” making an appearance during Ribeiro’s time on “Dancing with the Stars” was also addressed in a separate letter. ”Since Mr. Ribeiro performs a choreographic work with his professional dance partner, Witney Carson, and internet sources indicate that most of the professional dancers on this program create the choreography for their celebrity partner, we question whether the application names the correct author or authors for this work,” Florence wrote.
Dale Cendali of Kirkland & Ellis, the firm defending both Take-Two and Epic, filed a dismissal brief after the correspondence between the Copyright Office and Ribeiro was made known. ”This lawsuit suffers from a host of issues ranging from a lack of plausible ownership, to a lack of substantial similarity, to preemption by the Copyright Act. Fundamentally, it conflicts with the First Amendment as it attempts to impose liability, and thereby chill creative expression, by claiming rights that Plaintiff [Alfonso Ribeiro] does not hold. It should be dismissed,” she wrote.
Ribeiro’s suit has already had an effect on one game: Forza Horizon 4. Variety reported that an update to the game was released in January 2019 without the previously available “Carlton” and “Floss” dance moves for game characters (known as “emotes”). The family of social media star Backpack Kid, who is credited with creating the “Floss,” is also suing Epic and Take-Two over allegedly swiped moves.