Is copyright law dancing tuneless around choreographers?

One of Bollywood’s most well-known choreographers, Remo D’souza, intended to copyright his choreography for the ABCD film he was directing in 2013.  Is Remo D’souza, or any other choreographer, able to assert copyright in relation to choreographic works in India?

STEP UP to examine is dancing cinematography or dramatic work and whether dance moves are copyrightable.

Dancers perform with their mind and body in full swing and energy while still upholding the discipline required by the dance form, making dance the most expressive of all the arts. Many different dance styles have emerged and developed in cultures all throughout the world, and each dance has a distinctive structure and routine.

While some dance forms such as Kuchipudi or kathak have a predefined set of rules and routines for the entire dance performance, while “Michael Jackson” signature dance moves like his “moonwalk” or his famous “45-degree dance” are singular steps complete in themselves.

Even while we are aware that these recognizable dances are in the public domain, we nonetheless have the right to defend the authors’ work against attempts at infringement. Because everything unique, a product of the artist’s talent and intellectual labor, must be protected. Here, copyright protection and other forms of intellectual property are relevant.

In India, such signature moves or unique systematic patterns of dance moves are recognized as choreographic works and, therefore, are protected as dramatic work as defined in section 2(h) of the copyrights Act 1957. The limitation of dramatic work being copyrightable lies in that fixation and dramatic work exclude any form of cinematographic work.

These requirements must be met for a choreographic work to be copyrightable:

  • The creation of choreography must be original.
  • It must be systematic dance moves or steps that follow a pattern.
  • For choreography to be protected by the Copyright Act of 1957, it must be produced in a tangible form or transformed into writing.

In  Bikram’s Yoga Coll. of India, L.P. v. Evolution Yoga, LLC[1], the issue of whether or not the sequential and systemic method of yoga is protected by the Copyright Act was brought up. It was decided that because the yoga poses are a type of organized physical activity, they are not protected by the Copyright Act.

Lacuna exists in the law.

From a simple reading of this section, it is clear that one must establish a fixation to get copyright protection for choreography. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “fixation” includes:

  • Writing on paper.
  • Storing data on a disc.
  • Painting on canvas.
  • Recording audio on tape.

Therefore, if one wants to secure a copyright for choreography, they must convert it into a fixed form, such as a written or recorded version, “or otherwise,” and choreography shouldn’t be a part of cinematography. The phrase “or otherwise” and the exclusion of “cinematograph film” limit the section’s application to choreography.

The Supreme Court ruled in Academy of General Education, Manipal, and Others vs. B. Malini Mallya[2] that the ballet dance qualifies as a dramatic work under the Copyright Act, 1957, when reproduced in a literary form. Therefore, the artist or choreographer must transform the choreography or dance piece into a writing form so it may be registered with the registrar to obtain copyright.

The choreographic work is unquestionably copyrightable, but there is ambiguity because cinematography films are not included as a type of fixation, which is quite the challenge in India.  Unlike in India, Choreography can be fixed using any method, including videotaping, in the United States and the United Kingdom. It does seem irrational because dramatic works on video recordings cannot be protected by copyright.

Thus, it is evident that the legislation surrounding copyright in choreography is ambiguous and unresolved. For dancers, it is covered under the ambit of performer’s rights. Increased dance awareness and visibility of creativity are sorely needed in India to motivate more choreographers to protect their rights and underline a rise in copyright applications for choreographic works.





[1] Bikram’s Yoga Coll. of India, Ltd. P’ship v. Evolation Yoga, Ltd. Liab. Co.,803 F.3d 1032 (9th Cir. 2015)

[2] academy of general education, manipal v. malini  mallya, (2009) 4 scc 256

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