Fortnite, the Unicorn Frappuccino of video games, isn't exactly known for its originality. The game became a massive hit mostly thanks to its cheap point of entry, current childhood OCD epidemic, and its unashamed willingness to mine the zeitgeist for attention, like that one friend who gets on the table after one drink and won't stop doing their Austin Powers impression. As a result, developer Epic Games has seen a fair share of copyright lawsuits. But an upcoming case might cost Epic dearly, and all because they pissed off Carlton Banks.
One of the super-duper fun things to do in Fortnite is using the emotes, many of which are little endgame dances for when you somehow manage to outlive all your 12-year-old opponents. These dances can be earned both through play and microtransaction packs. But now, Epic is being sued for copyright infringement by several of these dance's creators. We've got rapper 2 Milly, the flossing Backpack Kid, and Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air star Alonzo Riviera, the popularizer of the world-acclaimed "Carlton."
Now, the Copyright Act of 1974 is actually pretty clear on this matter, and distinguishes between dance moves you can and can't copyright. In the same way that a musical note is just a sound, a dance step is just movement, and you can't own movement, because that's how we get to the store and buy food. Choreography is complex and documentable, with its own form of annotation like sheet music. Meanwhile, if you were to write down a dance move, it'd look less like an artful story through movement and more like instructions on how to throw a fireball in Street Fighter.
But the lawsuits say it's not that simple. They accuse Epic of "copying and coding dances and movements directly," and lifting someone's (unique) performance frame byframe, which could fortify their claim of Epic stealing these people's likenesses. If your character moves exactly like a Carlton and grooves exactly like a Carlton, they must be Carlton. Furthermore, as Nick Statt over at The Verge notes, the digital age has introduced an unforeseen commercial aspect to just about anything popular enough to become a shitpost. Meanwhile, the Copyright Office's critical thinking around dance moves ended around when the Twist was a hot new craze inciting teen pregnancy all over the country.
Also, those copyright squares don't have the end word on this anyway. That'd be a judge. Which is why the Fortnite lawsuits are so significant. They're the first to tread into this legal no man's land. That means a victory in these cases could set a definitive precedent for many future copyright disputes. Meaning that in the future, law students could be opening richly bound leather textbooks that feature whole chapters on Backpack Kid v Rainbow Shooty Game.
Of course, these lawsuits could have far-reaching consequences, especially once you realize that everything can be turned into a dumb meme and people love exploiting copyright loopholes on all sides. So the next question will be where this will all end. Perhaps soon, we'll forever lose the freedom to pick the Jennifer haircut during character creation, and a terrible dawn may come when humans can no longer turn around dramatically without owing money to some chipmunk's estate. The future is terrifying.
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