On March 29, lawyers representing choreographer Kyle Hanagami sued Epic Games for copyright infringement over the “It’s Complicated” dance emote in Fortnite. The in-game emote begins with movements which Hanagami’s lawyers allege are lifted from copyrighted dance moves created by the choreographer. The lawsuit was filed in the Central District of California, and states that Epic “did not credit Hanagami nor seek his consent to use, display, reproduce, sell, or create a derivative work based on the Registered Choreography.”
Kyle Hanagami is a professional choreographer who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, NSYNC, and BlackPink, among others. He also created dances for the Netflix animated movie Over the Moon.
In 2017, Hanagami posted a video of a dance he’d choreographed set to Charlie Puth’s “How Long.” In August of 2020, Fortnite introduced the “It’s Complicated” emote. Now, Hanagami’s lawyer, David Hecht, has posted a video to YouTube comparing the first movements of Hanagami’s dance with the first movements of the emote. The movements and timing do indeed appear to be almost identical. However, based on previous lawsuits filed against Epic, resemblance alone isn’t enough to establish a legitimate claim.
This is not the first time that Fortnite has been sued by creators who felt that Epic had inappropriately lifted and profited from their original dance creations. In December 2018, Epic Games was sued by multiple artists such as the Instagrammer Backpack Kid, Alfonso Ribeiro of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the rapper 2 Milly. Epic argued that the dance moves fell under the category of free speech, and that individual moves could not be copyrighted. Only complex patterns of movement can be formally registered with the copyright office.
The Supreme Court previously agreed with Epic’s argument, ruling that plaintiffs must register with the Copyright Office before they can sue for copyright infringement. Notably, in the case of the “So Long” dance choreography, Hanagami does hold the official copyright.
In the suit, Hanagami’s lawyers argue that Epic has monetarily profited off of their client’s choreography without his consent. (The emote, which rotates in and out of Fortnite’s in-game store at irregular intervals, costs 500 V-Bucks, roughly $5 in real-world currency, though players can acquire some V-Bucks through gameplay and can purchase in bulk to get a discount.) The lawyers note that their client was never approached by the company about licensing his work. The suit states that Epic should remove “It’s Complicated” and pay Hanagami the profits that were incurred through copyright infringement.
Hanagami’s lawyer David Hecht told Kotaku: “[Hanagami] felt compelled to file suit to stand up for the many choreographers whose work is similarly misappropriated. Copyright law protects choreography just as it does for other forms of artistic expression. Epic should respect that fact and pay to license the artistic creations of others before selling them.”
Kotaku reached out to Epic Games for a comment, but did not get a response by the time of publication.