In-game purchases and downloads have played a major role in turning gaming into a multi-billion industry. Major companies like Epic Games, the makers of the hit shoot-em-up game Fortnite, have turned to pop-culture and viral dances for inspiration on some of its games’ features.
Epic Games has come under fire in recent months for its use of “emotes,” downloads within the games that enable players to do specifics dances and movements. Some of the emotes are very similar to dances made by hip hop artists and popular online personalities, and those people are looking to be compensated, alleging that Epic Games and Fortnite used their likeness without permission.
One of the more notable lawsuits was presented by Alfonso Ribeiro, who is famous for his role as Carlton Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Ribeiro popularized a dance named after his character and alleged that Fortnite stole the dance for an emote.
Ribeiro’s case would be fine and dandy if a 2012 video of him saying he stole the dance from Courtney Cox and Eddie Murphy had not surfaced. Ribeiro’s took another hit when the United States Copyright Office denied his claim in February to copyright the dance, citing that his moves were not complex enough to justify copyright.
The U.S. Copyright Office does not grant copyright to individual words or phrases. This logic was applied to the few dance moves in the “Carlton.”
“You could repeat that word or phrase indefinitely — here I’m shaking my hips, here I’m shaking my hips, again and again — but that repetition doesn’t make the fragment subject to copyright protection,” Robert Brauneis, co-director of the intellectual property program at George Washington University Law School, said to the New York Times.
Ribeiro dropped his lawsuit against Epic Games, which could lead to trouble for other artist attempting to battle it out with the company.
There’s no reason that things should have gotten this far in the first place. Epic Games makes way too much money to not compensate artists and dancers for the viral-dance-inspired emotes. There’s no way that a team of developers thought that these dances just fell from the sky.
The lawsuits presented by rappers BlocBoy JB and 2 Milly tell a bigger story of large companies profiting off off hip-hop culture without properly attributing where the inspiration came from or compensating those who created the art. If Fortnite developers were unaware of the origins of the dance, then that speaks to the lack of diversity with companies like Epic Games.
So far, Epic Games is dealing with at least five lawsuits because of its emotes. Ribeiro’s dismissal is a small win for the company and may spell out trouble for BlocBoy JB and 2 Milly; however, it is important that gaming and creative communities watch how these case play out. If the courts vote in favor of the dancers whose moves have allegedly been stolen, then huge doors will open for creatives looking to profit off of the gaming industry.