Aside from the monumental challenge of actually creating movement, choreographers face an additional, ongoing challenge with each piece they create- namely, the challenge of protecting their work. Even though all artists–writers, painters, filmmakers–work to protect their creations, the nature of choreography makes it a little more difficult to capture and copyright.
Choreography is the composition and arrangement of dance movements and patterns, often accompanied by music. A registerable choreographic work should be capable of being performed and usually includes direction for movement. Pantomime or “mime” is considered a mute performance with expressive communication. Since it is a form of acting that consists mostly of gestures, there is an overlap in the categorization of pantomimes and dramatic works. Traditionally pantomimes and dramatic works are fixed in a system of written notation but the copyright law also provides that they may be fixed in any tangible medium including film, video or photograph.
Choreography and pantomimes are therefore copyrightable dramatic works. Choreography is the composition and arrangement of dance movements and patterns usually intended to be accompanied by music. Pantomime is the art of imitating or acting out situations, characters, or other events. To be protected by copyright, pantomimes and choreography need not tell a story or be presented before an audience. Each work, however, must be ﬁxed in a tangible medium of expression.
- Pantomime: The work may be embodied in a film or video recording or be precisely described in text or on a phonorecord.
- Choreography: The work may be embodied in a film or video recording or be precisely described on any phonorecord or in written text or in any dance notation system.
The Federal Copyright Law of 1976 set out rules for copyrighting choreography. Therefore today, the US copyright law protects choreography work as well. However, in order for the author to acquire copyright his/her choreography, the author must present a piece that is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression from which the work can be performed.” This means that the author must record the work in some physical medium.
When copyrighting choreography, the work can be “fixed” in a film or video recording or, it can be described, very carefully and exactly. For the purpose of copyright, the author can either describe the piece of choreography, or can use any sort of “phonorecord” to record the description. In the alternative, the author can also use a written description of the work such as a dance notation system, like Labanotation, Sutton Movement Shorthand, or Benesh Notation. In short a choreographic work assumes copyright if it is in dance notation, on paper, on phonorecord, or on a computer disk.
The benefit of fixing the work in a tangible medium is that, right from the moment it is fixed, according to copyright law, a difference is made with regard to the author’s choreographed work from other spontaneous work. Spontaneous work, such as an improvised solo, is also not protected by copyright. As in case of choreographic work, a pantomime may also be fixed in a film or video recording. Or it can even be described on a phonorecord or in written text.