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A Copyright Primer for the Dance Community

Download the PDF Version of Copyright - Primer (4.34 MB)

All performing artists—and those entrusted with the care of artistic creations —need to arm themselves with some basics of copyright law, to protect their creations from improper use or even outright theft. Furthermore, as users or adapters of the choreography, music, poetry, and similar material created by others, artists must become aware of their own potential liability for possible copyright infringement.

The following information is a brief overview of copyright issues, especially those relating to videotape production and use, which may affect members of the dance community. Specific questions that are not covered here should be addressed to the U.S. Copyright Office or to other resources listed below.

Local arts organizations or dance service organizations may also be of assistance, and they may be able to suggest attorneys specializing in copyright law or intellectual property rights. Note that while the U.S. Copyright Office is not permitted to give legal advice in specific copyright disputes, it does inform members of the public about general provisions of copyright law and the registration of copyrights. When in doubt, always consult an attorney—neither this brochure nor any service organization, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for expert legal advice. Copyright infringement, even if inadvertent, may be costly.


Copyright is the legal right of creative artists (as independent agents) or publishers to control the use and reproduction of their original works (see “Work for Hire” below). The owner of any such “intellectual property” has five rights:

(1) the right to reproduce it;
(2) the right to publicly perform it;
(3) the right to publicly display it (using static images);
(4) the right to create a derivative work; and
(5) the right to distribute copies of it (i.e., by hard copy or online).
Only the copyright owner or his or her agent may authorize others to exercise these rights.


Typically, the author of a work is its creator and initially obtains all rights to the work. If a work is created as part of the creator’s job, however, it is considered a work for hire. A work for hire may also be a specially commissioned work designated as such in a signed, work-for-hire agreement. In these cases, the employer or commissioner is considered the “author,” and the work for hire becomes the property of the employer or company that commissioned it.


A creator may acquire copyright for any of the following:

  • Literary works;
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • Choreographic works and Pantomimes;
  • Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural works;
  • Motion pictures and other Audiovisual works; and
  • Architectural works.

Such works are automatically protected by copyright the moment they are fixed in a “tangible form of expression”—even if they are never registered with the U.S. Copyright Office (for “Registration,” see page 9). For dance, this includes pieces captured on film or videotape, or through notation (e.g., Labanotation or Benesh). A live performance is not copyrightable unless it is somehow recorded and, thereby, made tangible.

Copyright requires a certain amount of intellectual labor; consequently, short dance phrases are not copyrightable, much the same as individual words or short verbal phrases are not. In addition, U.S. copyright requires a tangible medium of expression: an idea in someone’s head is not copyrightable, neither are improvised speeches or performances that have not been written down or recorded.

Copyright of a videotape or film covers all original elements of the picture, including any original script or music, and any audio and visual elements that are subject to copyright. Typically, a set or costume design is not copyrightable, unless it constitutes a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. Without the owner’s consent, no one may broadcast, exhibit, distribute, or make copies of the film or videotape, and no one may publicly perform anything captured on the film or videotape. (See “Fair Use” on page 6 for a notable exception.)

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