Famed Choreographer Dies… Intellectual Property Lawyers Take Over?

from the this-can't-end-well dept

A few years back, we wrote about the guy who claimed to have invented The Electric Slide sending DMCA takedown notices to people who put up videos of people (at weddings, for example) dancing the dance. Eventually, the EFF sued and the guy backed down, but it looks like we haven’t seen the end of aggressive enforcement of copyright control over choreography. Mockingbird writes in to let us know of a story talking about the recent death of choreographer Merce Cunningham, which focuses on how his estate is moving rapidly to execute a plan concerning the intellectual property he held in his dances. After discussing one of his famous routines that involved (literally) rolling some dice to determine the sequence, the article notes:

Yet, in a press conference held in Cunningham’s dance studio shortly before his death, Fishman announced, “The future of his life’s work cannot be left to chance.”

And from there, we get statements such as:

Cunningham, according to board member Allan Sperling, “wanted clarity with respect to the ownership, control, and continuity of his choreography.” Mr. Sperling adds, “He wanted it to be in the hands of those he trusted to carry out his philosophy and approach.” The trust, which has meticulously documented his works, controls licensing of revivals. “Presumably,” Sperling says, “the trustees will set standards for the way the work is performed.”

From there, the article branches off into a discussion on copyright. While it gets some of the facts wrong (claiming that copyright exists to protect an artist’s income, rather than the truth: it exists to create an incentive to create), it at least tries to balance some of the questions, discussing things like Creative Commons and the public domain. It also discusses exactly how other choreographers have been held back by copyright:

New York choreographer Jane Comfort has been inhibited artistically in the past by copyright barriers. She now commissions new scores for her dances rather than attempting to use copyrighted music. “It is stultifying and difficult,” she says. “The music industry and literary estates can be really tough.”

The article also quotes numerous other creative types hoping to get away from copyright and the hoops and hurdles people need to go through to create:

Contemporary composer Joel Durand, a professor of composition at the University of Washington in Seattle, knows composers rely on royalties for income but says, “I wish we were not so obsessively entrenched in our little discoveries.” He’d like his work to be freely available since, Durand says, “Everything we do is universal in a spiritual way. It all belongs to everybody because it doesn’t come from us as individuals.” Works “of an aesthetic nature,” he adds, are produced “in collaboration with the world, and the creator should offer it to all rather than clasp their fists around their thought for gain.”

Holby, too, wonders if unfettered access might flower into “a new Renaissance with everyone inspiring everyone else.”

But… don’t expect that to happen with Cunningham’s work from the sound of things. Even though the article notes that when he was alive he embraced change, collaboration, innovation and new technologies — it’s difficult to square that with this whole idea of his estate carefully controlling and licensing his works. It’s equally troubling to think that you can stop someone from dancing in a certain way just because someone else choreographed it first.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Famed Choreographer Dies… Intellectual Property Lawyers Take Over?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Yogi says:

Short sighted

All this will do is condemn this choreographer to oblivion.

No one will use his work because there is too much hassle and money involved.

Sooner or later most art will be based entirely on CC licensing of one sort or another.

And the works that belong to the copyright culture will simply disappear due to not being used or referenced, and they will be replaced by other, freer works.

I can say for sure that in my works I will not deal with copyright maniacs.

ASH says:

Wow, Mike–you are REALLY having trouble holding two thoughts together here.

In the VERY SAME paragraph that you note copyright “exists to create an incentive to create”, you say that “choreographers have been held back by copyright”…because one of them now commissions new music rather than using music already copyrighted.

In other words (say it with me now): AN INCENTIVE TO CREATE.

Which, as you just noted, was exactly how copyright was supposed to work…yeah?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In a very roundabout way, it may seem like the incentive to create is being fulfilled. But the copyright is supposed to be an incentive to create for the author/artist/etc who created the copyrighted work, not for those who want to use that work in their own expression, but are looking for ways around exorbitant fees.

In this case, while there is new creation happening, copyright in not the incentive. The incentive is in avoiding copyrighted works, which is completely opposite.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“In this case, while there is new creation happening, copyright in not the incentive. The incentive is in avoiding copyrighted works, which is completely opposite.”

What is amazing is that you wrote it without understanding the concept.

Without copyright, the people who are now “innovating” and creating new stuff might just be doing the old stuff over again. Copyright (of the original material) has encouraged the newcomers to do something different, aka, create something new – that is innovation and advancement.

Just going over the same rut over and over again isn’t innovation. Making something new, something unique – that is where innovation happens, and that is one of the side effects of strong copyright. It is making people think outside of the box, rather than just using someone else’s box.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“What is amazing is that you wrote it without understanding the concept.

Without copyright, the people who are now “innovating” and creating new stuff might just be doing the old stuff over again. Copyright (of the original material) has encouraged the newcomers to do something different, aka, create something new – that is innovation and advancement.”

What is truly amazing, fellow anonymous coward, is how you used my comment (which was NOT about the validity of copyright) as a launching point for your rant.

I never said we should go over the same rut again and again, or endlessly re-use the same old stuff. In this case, it doesn’t even apply as a choreographer is using music for dance. A completely different artistic area. If a musician was using another musician’s work, I might understand what you meant.

I was merely making the distinction of ASH’s comment that while this innovation may appear to be driven by copyright, it is NOT. It is being driven by the heavy-handed enforcement of copyright. The difference may be subtle, but I think it important. While the end result (new works being created) may be the same, the reasons differ.

And with that said, I’ll stop replying. Remember, arguing on the internet is like the special olympics. Win or lose, you’re still retarded.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem is you are confusing where the incentive is placed.

The point of copyright is to put for an incentive for the ORIGINAL CREATOR to create in the first place. The original point is say “you create this, you get a limited monopoly” so that by providing protection, a person will create art to begin with. The idea being that without this incentive, people wouldn’t create art because it’d instantly become public domain. They’re supposed to get a LIMITED monopoly to incentivize them to create, then it becomes public domain in time for them to have created their next piece of art.

What’s happening is, people are creating art to avoid the previously created art. So, the original artist no longer needs to create, but now it takes a new artist to come in and create, allowing the original artist to STOP CREATING new work, because they can effectively cash in on one piece of art for the rest of their lives.

It REDUCES the incentive for the ORIGINAL CREATOR to ever create anything else again in their lives. Because why create 100 novels and get paid once each, when you can create 1 novel and get paid 100 times (hard cover, soft cover, audiobook, 5 different eBook versions to put on different eBook readers, and then each person that has the audacity to reference or talk about your book).

So, the original protectionism to create through copyright is a failure, because it reduces the need to commission the original artist to create more.

Now as a side effect, because now art requires people to continuously pay monetarily for its influence on culture is other artists are forced to IGNORE THE PREVIOUS ART, thus removing it from popular culture, to create new works to avoid continuing that works influence. Because to continue its influence would require to continue paying the original artist. So, it is effectively creating an incentive for OTHER PEOPLE to create, so that ORIGINAL CREATOR doesn’t get to live a cushy life on the work of other people by getting paid for work they’ve already been paid for.

To boil it down:

Copyright exists to create an incentive on the original artist to create.

Copyright in practice creates an incentive on other artists to create while reducing the incentive for the original artist to create.

So, it’s not contradictory. It’s talking about different things entirely. Would Shakespeare have written as much as he had had he (1) had to pay all the previous story creators whom he “borrowed” and was “influenced” by, or (2) was able to continuously get paid over and over again for Romeo & Juliette and got paid for each and every revision or version through copyright?

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Thought Police

We are sorry, we saw you perform [insert dance here] on a YouTube video and have decided that you do not perform this dance to the standards set forth by the copyright holder.
You are hereby ordered to cease and desist and dancing actions from here on out so that you do not sully the reputation of this dance.
Yours truly,
The Thought Police

Mockingbird (profile) says:

The following may be of interest: In my own take on this story I note that the article on A.S. Sulliavan in the first edition of The New Grove held that the expiration of copyright in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas “proved Salutary, leading to…an all-round improvement in standards and a reawakening of imaginative interest.”

Depending on who is put in charge of the Cunningham copyrights, we may have a long wait before we get such a “reawakening of imaginative interest” applied to the Cunningham dances. If the Cunningham estate goes the way of the James Joyce and Samuel Beckett estates, policing Cunningham’s work with a heavy hand, the wait will seem long indeed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Dance, as stupid as it is, is body movement. So you could also copyright styles of walking, say… The kind with two feet? Why not shades of skin color, or has the makeup industry already started?

Defenders of this are so uncreative it blows my mind. You were the kid in school that didn’t get picked so you took your ball home. I hope douche bags are copyrighted so you all can’t speak for 20 years!

Anonymous Coward says:

I think you missed it Mike

You managed to take the same biased slant that you usually take without realizing the choreographer is actually embracing the idea of sharing his work. You elude to this in your article but write it off immediately as not being feasible.
Luckily I read the original article and the information I gleaned was that he did not want intellectual property fighting from preventing the use of his work as was the case with the Graham estate.
Masnick lemmings be warned, the facts are not always accurately represented in rewrites.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: I think you missed it Mike

According to the story as written, the choreographer embraced sharing … his estate does not. It’s not the choreographer that’s being attacked in the rewrite, but the estate of the choreographer which is claiming to be doing what it’s doing in what it believes are the wishes of the dead choreographer.

So, the rewrite states:
Choreographer – totally cool with sharing
Estate of choreographer – totally cool with controlling everything

Mike is claiming the estate is actually going against the wishes and mentalities the choreographer held while alive.

Sgt. Steele says:


In the Mayan empire those seeking power had to first show strength by bloodletting using a knife made from a stingray stinger. The bloodletting involved the aspirants genitals. I suggest we put a similar requirement into effect for those wishing to bring suit claiming copyright infringement. I think we’d see a decrease in the number of spurious lawsuits.

Scott says:


We need to roll back copyright law to the day when it was designed to protect the rights of the creator of a work of art for a limited time, so that the income from a successful work will support the artist while working on new art. However, after 10 years or so, the copyright ends, thus preventing artists from resting on their laurels.

Scott says:

Re: omfg

Oh, and by the way, inheritance, of copyrights should be limited by the same timeframe, or better yet, removed completely. And corporate entities should not be able to own copyrights of works created by single creators. Only works created by groups.

Artists should sign distribution agreements with the publishers, where the creative person can assign distribution rights, possibly exclusive, for their art, for whatever recompense they agree on. Those distribution right should be the only thing companies can own.

Although movies and TV shows are collaborative efforts and probably having them owned by the studio that created them is the best way to handle them.

Just sick of seeing RIAA and MPAA persecute people who only want to enjoy art, when the settlements only go to fuel more of the same, or line the RIAA/MPAA coffers.

anymouse (profile) says:

Re:Ash - If I have a Hammer, I'll Hammer in the morning

Nice analogy Ash, based on your statements, you apparently also consider a Hammer as an incentive to create, right?

I mean if you want to do create the same thing creating, but I’m standing here with a big hammer threatening to hit you on the head if you do, then you are going to create something different, right? Great incentive…

Is that really what you would consider an incentive? If so get me your contact info, I’d like to give you a few incentives to buy a bridge I’ve been looking to get rid of for quite a while now…..

sheesh, some people children just never learn.

/sarcasm off

Monty Python says:

From: Ministry of Silly Walks

Hello fellow graduate of the Ministry of Silly Walks. We are sad to inform you that your style of Silly Walking has been copyrighted by someone else and you are no longer allowed to walk in that manner. In fact, please refrain from walking at all, as you might encourage a silly lawsuit. Thanks and Goodluck.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...