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Find Dance in Copyright

“Keep the beat, but undermine it.”
“Use the feet as if you would pick up a flower with your toes.”

These are the kinds of unique instructions Hanya Holm would give her dance students. Hanya Holm, born Johanna Eckert in Worms am Rhein, Germany, was a German-American dancer, educator, and choreographer of modern dance and Broadway musicals. She is considered to be among the most influential American modern dance choreographers—one of the “big four” with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.

Beige background with typewritten text: HOLM, HANYA. Kiss me, Kate. Hanya Holm's choreography for Cole Porter's musical comedy. Written in the Laban dance notation by Ann Hutchinson. [Microfilm copy] c Hanya Holm; 25Feb52; DU30088

Registration card for Hanya Holm’s choreography for the musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Holm was a trailblazer in the world of dance. One of her most well-known works, Trend, was the first modern dance to be accompanied by prerecorded sound. She was also the first concert dancer to present her work on television in the United States. And, importantly for copyright history, in 1952, Holm registered her choreography for Kiss Me, Kate as a drama, making her the first person to register a copyright for choreography or dance. As part of her registration, Holm submitted a written Labanotation score of her choreography on microfilm. Labanotation, developed by Rudolf Laban, is a written dance notation system that records precise movement using abstract symbols.

Copyright protection for choreography was not specifically outlined in the Copyright Act of 1909 but was officially included in the Copyright Act of 1976, and Holm is on record as a contributor to the revised law. She was invited to comment on Copyright Law Revision Study number 28, Copyright in Choreographic Works, and her letter, dated January 2, 1960, makes three points: choreography should be subject to copyright; choreography should be named as a separate category of copyrightable matter; and the term “choreographic works” should include dramatic concert pieces, lyric-dramatic concert pieces, satirical concert pieces, and dance in operas, musical comedies, and revues.

The Copyright Act of 1976 does provide copyright protection for pantomimes and choreographic works created after January 1, 1978, that are fixed in some tangible medium of expression. The Copyright Office defines choreography as “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole.” While a copyright claim in choreography does not extend to any sounds or music that accompany it, the sounds and music may be eligible for copyright registration in their own right. For a choreographic work to qualify for copyright registration, it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as a video recording, textual descriptions, photographs, drawings, or dance notation, like Labanotation.

Full page screenshot of the front page of Circular 52: Copyright Registration of Choreography and Pantomime

For a fulsome look at registering choreography and pantomime, including what is and is not eligible for copyright protection and how to register pre-1978 choreographic works, check out the Copyright Office’s Circular 52.

It is also important to note that some categories of dance and movement are not protected by copyright. These include common or individual movements like yoga poses or sequences, social dances like folk or line dances, athletic activities like a unique slam-dunk maneuver, and routines not performed by humans like skits for trained animals or installation art or sculptures that incorporate moving parts.

The urge to move or express emotion through movement can sometimes feel primal or involuntary. Music, poetry, activism—all of these (and more) can inspire movement and dance. Dance is a physical manifestation and embodiment of emotion and plays an important role in documenting and sharing the lived experiences of different peoples. As the Copyright Office began curating the new exhibit, Find Yourself in Copyright, these were key aspects of dance and choreography that we hoped to highlight at the intersection of copyright and creativity. For the exhibit, we selected two artifacts related to dance and choreography. The first is a photograph of Fé Alf, a dancer at Hanya Holm’s Wigman School in New York City, by Arnold Genthe. The second artifact is the 1971 Labanotation for Antony Tudor’s ballet Fandango, a twelve-minute playful dance that tells the story of five girls who meet in a Spanish public square and start playing and competing with each other.

Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.

Other Sources:
https://www.britannica.com/art/dance-notation/Twentieth-century-developments
https://www.dancemagazine.com/choreography-copyright/
https://www.copyright.gov/timeline/

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