A growing cluster of actors, musicians and viral internet stars have Fortnite in their crosshairs. The smash hit third-person shooter is free to play but generates mountains of revenue through in-game microtransactions. Those purchases lure avid Fortnite players to spend real-life cash on virtual cosmetic items, like special character skins (today: a winter skiing set!) and, most importantly, dance moves.
Now, Fortnite creator Epic Games faces two new lawsuits over dance moves: one from actor Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton on the TV hit “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” in the 1990s and another from the family of Russell Horning, better known as “Backpack Kid,” who created a viral dance called “the Floss.” Horning’s lawsuit also names 2K Sports, maker of NBA 2K, for that game’s depiction of his dance. Earlier in December, rapper 2 Milly filed a lawsuit against Fortnite maker Epic over the game’s depiction of his dance move, the Milly Rock, which the game calls “Swipe it.”
Ribeiro’s lawyer provided TechCrunch with the following statement:
It is widely recognized that Mr. Ribeiro’s likeness and intellectual property have been misappropriated by Epic Games in the most popular video game currently in the world, Fortnite. 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. Therefore, Mr. Ribeiro is seeking his fair and reasonable share of profits Epic has earned by use of his iconic intellectual property in Fortnite and as a result is requesting through the courts that Epic cease all use of Mr. Ribeiro’s signature dance.
Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht LLP is also pursuing similar claims against Take-Two Interactive and Visual Concepts, developer of the NBA 2K series of video games, on behalf of Mr. Ribeiro.
Fortnite’s in-game dance moves are ubiquitous, both in-game and out — and that’s part of the problem. The game lifted its most popular dance moves from various online viral moments across the internet, TV, movies and music. In most cases the in-game dances are so well-loved because they copy their source material so precisely. While the game lifts these dances move for move, making them widely recognizable, it doesn’t refer to the source material directly and renames the dances with generic nicknames. In Fortnite, the “Tidy” dance is Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” dance, “Jubilation” is Elaine’s dance from Seinfeld, “Pure Salt” (not really a dance, some of these are just emotes) is from the Salt Bae meme, Psy’s Gangnam Style dance and so on. In the case of the Carlton dance, Fortnite gives a small nod to the dance’s origins by naming it “Fresh.”
The game draws from a wide pool of source material, but black creators in particular have spoken out about Fortnite’s monetization moves. Black artists have a long history of seeing their work achieve broad mainstream popularity without commercial gain or credit to accompany it. When Chance the Rapper tweeted about Fortnite’s relationship to black artists in July, BlocBoy JB — creator of the dance the game calls “Hype” — endorsed the idea that artists like himself should be paid if Fortnite is making money from their moves.
Fortnite’s default in-game emote is a dance that actor Donald Faison performs on the show Scrubs, and Faison has also taken notice.
Fortnite’s decision to animate its characters doing popular dance moves in and of itself isn’t new. Overwatch creator and Epic competitor Blizzard includes popular dance emotes in its own multiplayer shooter, and before that in multiplayer RPG World of Warcraft. In Blizzard’s case, the depiction of dance moves, some for sale via lootboxes, isn’t quite as on the nose nor does it mine current internet culture as thoroughly.
For example, the Overwatch character Junkrat does a version of the running man dance that looks a lot like a version of the dance by Will Smith’s character on “The Fresh Prince.” That dance was itself popularized by Janet Jackson in her “Rhythm Nation” music video.
Other Overwatch dance emotes are drawn from traditional Japanese dance and anime. In Blizzard’s classic game World of Warcraft, the blood elf characters feature dances culled from the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” and Britney Spears music videos. In World of Warcraft’s case, these moves weren’t for sale in-game — the microtransaction model hadn’t yet really taken off during the game’s heyday.
Epic Games was likely aware that lifting these dance moves and selling them to gamers might cause a stir among some creators, but by that time it was probably already making too much money to care. Notably, the company faced a high-profile copycat accusation from the creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a battle royale-style game widely understood to have inspired Fortnite’s gameplay. PUBG dropped the lawsuit in June of this year, likely after a substantial settlement.
Epic also appears to have quietly paid at least one creator to settle a potential legal threat. Dancer Gabby David, who created the Fortnite dance called the “Electro Shuffle,” appears to have settled with Epic Games around a year ago for the game’s depiction of her choreography, according to forum posts and her Twitter account. Epic Games declined to comment to TechCrunch about the details of the settlement.
All three individuals suing Epic Games over Fortnite dances are being represented by intellectual property lawyer David L. Hecht and we’re likely to see more artists and internet stars signing on with Hecht before this is all over. We don’t know Epic’s next move, but as some players have suggested, it would be easy enough for the gamemaker to add some kind of tie-in crediting the creators for their dances. Epic happily partners with entertainment companies and even the NFL for sure to be lucrative in-game promotional crossovers, so it’s tough to say something like this would be out of place in the game.
Given the complexity of copyright law and the fact that none of the individuals holds copyright of their respective dances, it’s not clear if any of the latest legal action against Fortnite’s creators will hold water. Still, given its deep pockets — Epic just raised a $1.25 billion round two months ago — settling a handful of small lawsuits over the game’s well-loved dance emotes is a small price to pay for Fortnite’s colossal success.