top of page

From Serpentine to Single Ladies: Navigating Choreography Copyrights in the Age of TikTok

Credit: Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) | YouTube

As an ancient and honored art form, dance holds profound significance within many cultures and symbolizes a timeless expression of human creativity. Choreography is unique to other art forms because it transcends stationary visuals by incorporating movement, music, and a narrative into a piece. It has a rich history that spans from ancient dances, to classical 18th-century Russian ballets, to modern-day hip-hop troupes. As artists, choreographers want to claim exclusive rights to their art while regulating its reproduction. However, unlike other artists, they cannot simply sign their name at the bottom corner or display it on a sign attached to their piece. Even though a choreographer's work is a product of their own mind and reflects their personal style, it takes work to keep others from reusing their choreography. The copyright protection of choreography presents complex legal issues as the topic intersects with artistic expression, cultural heritage, and commercial interests. This creates a nuanced consideration of the balance between allowing choreographers exclusive rights to their dances while still fostering innovation within the dance community. 

Choreographers invest significant time and energy into creating dances, and allowing copyright protection for their choreography ensures their work is recognized as intellectual property. This protection allows choreographers to commercially monetize their work and protects its integrity. Although choreographers' attribution in their work should be protected, the scope should not hinder future choreographers' creativity. These issues are increasingly prevalent as new technology, specifically short-form video platforms such as TikTok, popularize dance trends and complicate dance copyrights even further.

Present Protection of Choreographic Works:

Choreographers have long attempted to copyright their work, some of the earliest occurrences being registered in the 1890s. However, the history of copyright shows that it has been an uphill battle to include choreographers in the copyright act, only being added in the 1976 Act decades after the 1909 Act. The law on choreography copyright is still evolving; Beyoncé's famous choreographer, JaQuel Knight, is a prime example of a modern choreographer who successfully pursued copyright protection for his choreography. Knight made history in July 2020 as the first choreographer to copyright a non-ballet choreographic work. The copyright obtained was for the choreography for the famous song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Choreographers like Knight need to have the ability to register their choreography to establish a public record of ownership and secure legal protection. Knight launched Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc. in a giant stride to take creative control. Knight has continued to seek copyright registration for additional choreographic works, such as the choreography for “Body,” performed by Meghan Thee Stallion, and “WAP,” performed by Cardi B. 

Choreography Copyright Protection and The Copyright Act of 1976:

Choreography, as a form of creative expression, is eligible for copyright protection, allowing choreographers to own the copyright to the choreography they create. To qualify for copyright protection, the choreography must be original, where the choreographer independently creates it. Additionally, the choreography must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression to be eligible for copyright protection. This could include written notation of the dance sequence, video recordings, photographs, or drawings. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, registered choreography must consist of “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole.” 

Credit: Candace Klaw | USF College of the Arts

A dance created by a choreographer or dancer is considered a creative work that can be granted copyright protection if: (i) it is an original work; (ii) it is a coherent whole (i.e., not just individual movements); and (iii) if it is fixed in a tangible medium (e.g., written illustration of the dance steps and movements or a video recording of the dance). Registering the choreography with the appropriate copyright office (such as the U.S. Copyright Office) establishes a public record of the copyright claim and is often necessary to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement in many jurisdictions.

Like other copyrighted work, copyrighted choreography may be used under the Doctrine of Fair Use, which allows for limited and transformative uses without the copyright owner's permission. Choreographers who qualify for copyright protection can monitor and enforce their rights by taking action against their choreography's unauthorized use or reproduction. In other cases, owners of the choreography may license their choreography for use in other projects, such as commercials, television shows, or stage productions, granting permission in exchange for compensation.

Simple Routines Are Not Protected By Copyright:

As the Supreme Court held in Feist, to warrant copyright protection, the work must have some minimal degree of creativity. Choreography that is merely a simple routine does not rise to the level of creative expression entitled to copyright protection. Copyright protection for choreography extends to the specific sequence and arrangement of dance steps, but it does not protect the individual dance steps themselves or the general idea or concept behind the choreography. Others can create their own choreography using similar movements or themes as long as they do not directly copy the original choreography. For example, “common place movements or gestures that do not qualify for registration as choreographic works include: a set of movements whereby a group of people spell out letters with their arms, yoga positions, a celebratory end zone dance move or athletic victory gesture.” 

Concerns for the Future of “Short-Form” Choreography Seen in Platforms, Such as TikTok:

Recent controversy has arisen surrounding the copyright rights of TikTok dances, which tend to be “short-form” sequences of movements. These short and fun dancing videos have become “dance challenges” and are recreated by TikTok users globally. Choreography for these dances is created to a sound and performed for forty-five to ninety seconds in a recorded video. These “dance challenges” are performed by TikTok users and often include famous influencers or celebrities of the app. For example, ‘Renegade’ remains one of the most recreated dances on TikTok, with over 35.6 million videos. Celebrities such as Lizzo, Kourtney Kardashian, and David Dobrik have all performed the Renegade and received millions of views for their performances. While these dance moves have received global recognition, and some viewers may associate these dances with certain TikTok influencers, such as Charli D'Amelio or Addison Rae, the public rarely has knowledge as to who created the choreography or performed the routine first. Jalaiah Harmon, a fourteen-year-old from Atlanta, created the Renegade choreography and it is now a famous TikTok dance challenge. However, choreographers like Jalaiah are unlikely to receive recognition or financial compensation for their choreography. 

The questions posed by the short-form media choreography copyright are whether it can be protected, and further, whether it should be protected by copyright. While there has not been a specific lawsuit over a TikTok dance, recent video game litigation highlights the current legal attitude toward copyright protection of choreography. Hanagami v. Epic Games was initiated by the choreographer Kyle Hanagami, who claimed that his choreography for a Charlie Puth music video was infringed by Epic, the creator of the popular video game Fortnite, in the game’s “it's complicated” emote. While the case was eventually dismissed in district court in 2024, the opinion relied on the Second Circuit’s approach in Horgan v. Macmillan. Copyrightable choreography is “the composition and arrangement of a series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole.” In contrast, uncopyrightable dance is a “static and kinetic succession of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships.” The difference is in composition and the performance itself, rather than the physical movement, which aligns with general copyright law emphasizing intellectual creation. 

Further case law is needed to see how this separation of choreography and dance will play out on social media, including TikTok. Courts might view the TikTok dances, which must be condensed in time due to the length of videos, as short routines that are not copyrightable since, as section 805.5(A) of the 3rd edition of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices states, “[t]he U.S. Copyright Office cannot register short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.” As choreography copyright develops, the courts or legislation will hopefully answer these questions regarding short-form media dance. 

What's Next?:

The future of choreography protection is still developing; the law has a ripple effect, resulting in outcomes such as the divestment of copyrighted choreography. While Congress has historically been extremely slow in addressing copyright issues regarding dance, the new wave of legislative interest in TikTok may also spur an interest in the copyright law of the content popularized by the app, including global dance trends. Future outcomes from choreography protection are still speculative and will depend on how courts apply longstanding copyright analysis to the new world of short-form dances. 

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


bottom of page