Access to Justice, Breakdance, Copyright, and Why You Should Read This Blog

Friday, September 23, 2011


There is a legal matter of serious concern to street dancers from the Bronx, Queens and Harlem, a matter which has received little (if any) attention from lawyers, policy-makers, or mainstream media.

To explain the issue, I need to first give you a little bit of background about street dance and the street dance scene. Street dance involves “free-styling” – making up steps as one goes along, rather than performing sequences that were choreographed and rehearsed. Street dancers often develop their own personal style, and become known for their signature moves. While the steps and sequences are improvised, the underlying dance techniques tend to fall into an existing dance form – popping, locking, waving, voguing, waacking etc. – or some combination of existing dance forms. These dance forms started out as social dances, but have taken on a commercial character as well: dance “battles” attract individual street dancers and dance crews from quite a ways away who pay a relatively small entrance fee in exchange for the chance to win significant prize money. Others buy tickets to watch the event.

It is becoming increasingly common for attendees to illicitly record the improvised performances, which is against the rules of these events. Rumour has it (and I have not yet been able to find any actual evidence supporting or refuting the claims) that there is high demand for these videos among foreign pop stars, whose choreographers copy the moves and incorporate them into choreography for live performances and music videos. New York street dancers get upset about this for a number of reasons: (1) they feel the moves are their moves and no one else should be able to use them without their permission; (2) since the presumed purchasers of the videos don’t always have the proper training in the underlying dance forms, they might do the moves incorrectly; and (3) if any money is made off of these recordings, they believe that they should get a cut.

These facts are interesting to analyze from a number of perspectives. From intellectual property: Can someone actually hold copyright in a dance step or is it analogous to words, which are excluded from copyrightability because they are the building blocks for all writing? Access to justice is another concern: Street dancers on the whole don’t have the means to hire a lawyer. Even if they did, many feel that the legal system isn’t in place to help them. They are more likely to resort to “self-help” remedies.

You can probably guess why this issue is not getting attention among lawyers, policymakers or mainstream journalists: because they don’t really spend much time talking to street dancers. So what’s the moral of the story? You should read this blog. For those of you interested in feminist/equality issues, or in hearing women’s perspectives on a broad range of issues, it’s obvious why: you will read reflections from a large number of smart, thoughtful scholars discussing a vast array of important topics. For those of you who don’t consider these to be specific personal (or professional) interests: learning about issues and perspectives other than those to which you naturally gravitate carries a significant risk of exposing you to problems you weren’t aware of or angles you hadn’t explored. That’s a pretty exciting possibility.

Madelaine Saginur is the Executive Director of the Centre for Law, Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.
Designed by Rachel Gold.