We may earn a commission when you buy through links in our articles. Learn more.

US Copyright Office says Alfonso Ribeiro doesn’t own The Carlton

US Copyright law seems to state that no one can own a dance move

From Scrubs actor Donald Faison to rappers Snoop Dogg and 2 Milly, many creators of memetic dance moves have expressed concern at videogames incorporating those moves as emotes (or, in Faison’s words, “jacking that s**t”). They’ll probably be disappointed to learn that the US Copyright Office has refused to register Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actor Alfonso Ribeiro as the owner of the iconic ‘Carlton Dance’.

The reason for the decision is technical, focusing on the definition of a registrable “choreographic work”. In a letter to Ribeiro’s attorneys (via the Hollywood Reporter), Saskia Florence, a registration specialist in the Copyright Office’s Performing Arts Division, describes the three main steps of the Carlton dance before concluding “the combination of these three dance steps is a simple routine that is not registrable as a choreographic work.”

Florence explains that the current copyright laws were never intended to protect simple movements that your dad could bust out on a Saturday night. Indeed, Congress stated specifically when drafting them that “‘choreographic works’ do not include social dance steps and simple routines,” but must go further, and must arrange “a related series of dance
movements and patterns […] into an integrated, coherent, and expressive whole.” Only when a work meets this threshold can it be copyrighted.

Similar arguments were made earlier in the week by Kirkland & Ellis attorney Dale Cendali on behalf of both NBA 2K publisher Take-Two and Fortnite publisher Epic Games.

The Copyright Office now appears to endorse those arguments, but note that its decision doesn’t carry the same weight as a legal ruling, or have the same power to set legal precedent. For more on the subject, check out a real copyright lawyer’s take in the video above.

Want more like Fortnite? Check out the best battle royale games

That’s why the future of these dances in games is still up in the air. Ribeiro is suing both Take-Two and Epic for using The Carlton, and a failure to register the dance as “his” doesn’t necessarily mean his suit is doomed. The US Supreme Court is currently discussing the requirements for copyright litigation, which should start future cases on firmer ground.