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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – pantomimes

The Copyright Act recognizes pantomime as a distinct category of copyrightable authorship. The statute does not define “pantomime.” However, the legislative history states that this term has a “fairly settled meaning.”

Pantomime is the art of imitating, presenting, or acting out situations, characters, or events through the use of physical gestures and bodily movements. Long before Congress extended federal copyright protection to pantomimes, the Supreme Court recognized that a silent performance is worthy of copyright protection if it qualifies as a dramatic work.

As Justice Holmes observed: “Drama may be achieved by action as well as by speech. Action can tell a story, display all the most vivid relations between men, and depict every kind of human emotion, without the aid of a word. It would be impossible to deny the title of drama to pantomime as played by masters of the art.”

Pantomimes and choreographic works are separate and distinct forms of authorship. The physical movements in a pantomime tend to be more restricted than the movements in a choreographic work, while pantomime uses more facial expressions and gestures of the hands and arms than choreography.

Unlike a choreographic work, a pantomime usually imitates or caricatures a person, situation, or event. While choreography is typically performed with a musical accompaniment, pantomime is commonly performed without music or measured rhythm.

Pantomimes typically contain one or more of the elements described below, although the presence or absence of a given element is not determinative of whether a particular work constitutes a pantomime.

Pantomime is executed through the physical movement of a performer’s body. Specifically, a pantomime directs the performer’s movements, gestures, and facial expressions in a defined sequence and a defined spatial environment, such as a stage.

A pantomime represents a related series of movements, gestures, and facial expressions organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive compositional whole.

Pantomime is typically performed without dialog. The sounds that accompany the work (if any) may include sound effects or a musical accompaniment that accentuate the performer’s actions or compliment the work as a whole. However, a claim in the pantomime itself does not extend to such music or sounds.

A pantomime may present a story or theme or it may be an abstract composition. Pantomimes often tell a story, develop characters or themes, and convey dramatic concepts or ideas through a sequence of gestures and bodily movements. They may be performed either with or without makeup, masks, costumes, scenery, or props.

A pantomime first published prior to January 1, 1978 cannot be registered unless the work tells a story, develops a character, or expresses a theme or emotion by means of specific movements and physical actions. Pantomime was not mentioned in the 1909 Act, and as a result, this type of work could only be registered if it qualified as a “dramatic work.”

By definition, a pantomime is a work that is intended to be performed before an audience.

Fixation of Pantomimes

The U.S. Copyright Office may register a claim to copyright in a pantomime, provided that the specific movements, gestures, and facial expressions constituting the work have been fixed in a tangible medium of expression. As a general rule, the work should be fixed in a visually perceptible form, because pantomime involves the physical movements of a performer’s body which are visually perceived.

A pantomime should be fixed in a form that depicts or describes the movements, gestures, and facial expressions in sufficient detail to permit the work to be performed. In addition, the specific movements and physical actions that constitute the pantomime should be fixed in a form that allows the work to be performed in a consistent and uniform manner. Any copy or phonorecord that satisfies this requirement will suffice, such as a written description of the work or an actual performance of the work captured in a motion picture.

The U.S. Copyright Office may register a pantomime, even if the author left some room for improvisation or if some improvisation is intended in the performance of the work. However, it is not possible to copyright an improvised pantomime if the improvisation has not been fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

For example, the Office will refuse to register a work that simply directs the performer to improvise a pantomime based on a particular theme or otherwise does not illustrate, depict or describe the performer’s specific movements.

Unlike choreography, pantomimes are not fixed using a specific form of symbolic notation, although a dance notation system could conceivably be used for notating this type of work.

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