Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor who played Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Russell "Backpack Kid" Horning have filed lawsuits against Epic Games for their use of the Carlton dance and "The Russell" dances in the popular battle royale game Fortnite. With Fortnite recently surpassing 200 million players, the game has hit the kind of general cultural penetration of which even the largest gaming franchises can only dream. Given that many of the signature dance emotes in-game are being sold as microtransactions, some of the originators of those moves want a small slice of that colossal profit-pie.
It was reported in July that Fornite's in-game microtransactions alone had earned Epic Games over $1 billion in revenue. One of the biggest sellers on the platform happens to be different emotes and dances, too, which makes the irritation many of the sources of inspiration for the dances seem pretty understandable. It becomes even more understandable when you learn that many of the originators weren't even asked or compensated for their moves being used beat-for-beat in-game to earn a lot of real-world dollars.
Yesterday, it came to light that the mother of the 16-year-old Horning had filed a lawsuit in her son's name as they are in the process of copyrighting the iconic dance move. Details about the lawsuit remain unknown and the damages specified haven't been revealed as of yet. Concerning Alfonso Ribiero, his lawyer, David Hecht of the law firm Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht explained the reasoning behind the lawsuit saying, “Epic has earned record profits off of downloadable content in the game, including emotes like ‘Fresh.’ Yet Epic has failed to compensate or even ask permission from Mr. Ribeiro for the use of his likeness and iconic intellectual property,” The same law firm is also representing Russel Horning and the rapper 2 Milly who announced earlier this month that he would be suing Epic Games over the in-game use of the Milly Rock dance.
For those wondering if the dances used in Fortnite are really that similar to those performed by the people filing lawsuits, check out the video below for a side-by-side comparison courtesy of YouTube channel Cinema of Gaming.
So, does this lawsuit have a case? Well, the answer isn't really straightforward. A large part of it could revolve around the technical ownership of the dances themselves. For example, the Carlton dance might technically belong to the producers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air depending on the contracts Alfonso Ribiero signed. It could also be that no one technically owns the rights, making the dance a work in the public domain. Depending on how long it has been since the dance was created, it might be impossible to prove who really created the dance and thereby impossible to prove ownership of any copyright. It could also be that a freelance choreographer was hired, making the work technically someone else's entirely.
All this means that a legal battle over the ownership of these dances could be a long and complicated legal battle. That might make Epic more interested in settling out of court for undisclosed sums of money or a share in the profits, especially given that in at least some of the cases the company never asked for permission. It will be interesting to see if more of these dance creators appear to claim some share of Epic Games' $1 billion in revenue.
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