Alfonso Ribeiro sues video game makers over the “Carlton Dance”
December 19, 2018
On Monday, December 17, 2018, Alfonso Ribeiro, an actor best known for roles on “Silver Spoons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” filed two separate lawsuits regarding copyright and publicity rights associated with what is colloquially known as the “Carlton Dance.” Ribeiro sued the makers of the popular Fortnite and NBA2K games for their allegedly unauthorized uses of this dance choreography. His causes of action are based on copyright infringement, violation of publicity rights (California state law), and state and federal unfair competition claims.
The lawsuit(s) begin by asserting that Ribeiro is “an internationally famous Hollywood star, known for his starring role as Carlton Banks from the hit television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and as host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Ribeiro created his highly recognizable “Dance,” that has also been referred to by the public as “The Carlton Dance,” which exploded in popularity and became highly recognizable as Ribeiro’s signature dance internationally. The Dance is now inextricably linked to Ribeiro and has continued to be a part of his celebrity persona.” The lawsuits later allege that “The Dance has become synonymous with Ribeiro.” In short, these assertions are wildly debatable. Given the national attention this case has received, I would like to look at some of the legal issues raised by these lawsuits and address the possible and likely defenses to Ribeiro’s claims and contentions.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The most famous individual from the American civil rights movement left behind a impactful, while often misunderstood legacy, which still resonates across the world today. From an IP perspective, he also left behind a sizable amount of popular copyrighted works. Yes, the “I Have a Dream” speech is still protected by U.S. Copyright law today.
You still need to acquire permission from the King estate to use his works, including his speeches. While the estate has made some questionable decisions about who to license these works to, the fact remains that the estate maintains control over his name, his likeness, and his copyrighted works today.
But did you know that if not for Mickey Mouse and Sonny Bono, that the MLK estate would be losing the rights to these copyrighted works to the public domain this year? It’s true.
In January 2015, in Davis v. Electronic Arts Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the makers of the extremely popular Madden NFL video game series could not overcome former players’ claims for violation of publicity rights by claiming First Amendment protections. Electronic Arts Inc., the Defendant and the maker of the game, eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court on grounds that they are essentially being penalized for making a game that is “too realistic” and life-like. An emboldened use of the “we are just too good at our jobs” defense, perhaps?
On Monday, March 21, 2016, without any further commentary, the Supreme Court denied EA Sports’ petition to hear the appeal. Procedurally, this is called a denial of certiorari, and it means that the Ninth Circuit’s verdict remains the final judicial determination on the issues presented. Colloquially speaking, and while maintaining the proper sports metaphors, this means the Supreme Court punted.
But what really is the issue here? Where do publicity rights end and the First Amendment begins? Why does EA Sports contend that it has no obligation to pay retired professional athletes for the use of their images and likeness rights?