What Type of Dances are Copyrightable?

The Copyright Act includes dances in the “pantomimes and choreographic works” category of protected works. This category protects dances that were created after January 1, 1978 and are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

Choreography is “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole” while pantomime is “the art of imitating, presenting, or acting out situations, characters, or events through the use of physical gestures and bodily movements.” (Definitions taken from the U.S. Copyright Office’s Circular 52, Copyright Registration of Choreography and Pantomime.)

There are some types of dances that cannot be protected by copyright law, including choreography and pantomimes consisting of “ordinary motor activities, social dances, commonplace movements or gestures, or athletic movements” as these categories may lack sufficient authorship. Some examples of dances not protected by copyright are:

  • 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
  • Ballroom, folk, line, square, and swing dances (social dances)
  • General exercise routines
  • Skateboarding or snowboarding tricks

In addition, the dance must be carried out by a human to be eligible for copyright protection. The Copyright Act does not protect:

  • Dressage routines
  • Skits and routines for trained animals to perform
  • Movement routines created for robots, machines, or other inanimate objects to perform
  • Installation art or sculptures incorporating moving parts

How Do You Fix a Dance?

To be protected by copyright a work must also be fixed in a tangible medium. Under the Copyright Act dances may be fixed in several ways, including:

  • Dance notation such as Labanotation and Benesh Dance Notation
  • Video recordings of a performance
  • Textual descriptions, photographs, or drawings

Looking to learn more about what type of works can by copyrighted? Check out the Copyright Basics section of Copyright Law Explained.