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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – Copyrightable Authorship in Choreographic Works

The U.S. Copyright Office may register a claim to copyright in a choreographic work, provided that (i) the work is a dance; (ii) the dance constitutes copyrightable subject matter under Section 102(a)(4) of the Copyright Act; (iii) the dance contains a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship; and (iv) the dance was created by a human author for human performers.

As the Second Circuit observed in Horgan, “dance is static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships,” while choreography is the composition and arrangement of “a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole”. When evaluating a claim to copyright in choreography, the registration specialist will use objective criteria to determine whether the work is a dance that constitutes copyrightable subject matter under Section 102(a)(4) of the Copyright Act.

In making this determination, the specialist will focus on the intrinsic nature of the work, rather than the specific performance that is reflected in the deposit copy(ies). When Congress extended copyright protection to choreographic works, it did not intend to protect all forms of dance or movement. Instead, it used the term “choreographic work” in contrast to non-compositional dances, such as social dances or simple dance routines.

The U.S. Copyright Office may register a choreographic work, provided that the dance contains a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship that was created by the choreographer. The registration specialist will use objective criteria to determine whether a choreographic work satisfies these requirements by reviewing the information provided in the application and by examining the deposit copy(ies), including the individual elements of the work as well as the dance as a whole. The specialist will not consider subjective criteria that have no bearing on whether the originality requirement has been met, such as the author’s intent, the aesthetic value, artistic merit, or intrinsic quality of the dance, or the symbolic meaning or commercial impression of the dance.

To qualify (draft) as a work of authorship a choreographic work must be created by a human being and it must be intended for execution by humans. Dances performed or intended to be performed by animals, machines, or other animate or inanimate objects are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Social dances, simple routines, and other uncopyrightable movements cannot be registered as separate and distinct works of authorship, even if they contain a substantial amount of creative expression. Nevertheless, uncopyrightable movements may be used as the building blocks for a choreographer’s expression, in much the same way that words and short phrases provide the basic material for writers. Choreographic works that incorporate social dance steps, simple routines, or even athletic exercises may be protected by copyright, provided that the work as a whole contains a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship.

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