Joe Hadsall: Dances in 'Destiny' illustrate challenges of copyrighting choreography

The dance from the video of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” will be available to “Destiny 2” players as an emote on Tuesday. Photo illustration | Joe Hadsall

Later this week, “Destiny 2” will roll out Crimson Days, a special event that focuses on pairing with a partner to take down other couples in player-vs.-player matchups. The rewards are all themed along “Destiny’s” futuristic take on Valentine’s Day. Among the red and pink shaders, emblems, sparrows and ghosts, the highlight of the event is an emote called Flaunting Dance. Equip it, and your Guardian will move exactly like Beyonce and her crew in the “Single Ladies” video.

I’ll pause so the absurdity of that last paragraph can sink in.

The members of my gaming clan make frequent use of those dancing emotes. After defeating Calus in the game’s Leviathan raid, my fireteam members and I can “do the time warp again” a la “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on his corpse. Before the fight, we can pump ourselves up with the Melbourne Shuffle dance popularized by LMFAO in “Party Rock Anthem.” And recently, several of my clanmates have enjoyed using the “YMCA” dance made famous by the Village People.

We even have an official clan emote: The arm swinging dance made legendary by the backpack kid during Katy Perry’s performance of “Swish Swish” on “Saturday Night Live.”

One of the strange things about “Destiny” is how super-warriors in Earth’s distant future have such strong ties to modern pop culture. Since the first version of the game, many of the game’s more desirable dances were direct references to famous songs or moments. “Destiny” offered the chance to get emotes that looked like:

Ellen’s terrible dance from “Seinfeld.”

Napoleon Dynamite’s dancing to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat.”

• Shia LaBouef’s green-screen motivational “Do It” speech.

Will Smith's and Alfonso Ribeiro’s strutting stomp set to Sir Mixalot’s “Jump On It.”

• Quarterback Cam Newton’s dab.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance.

Drake’s strange movements from “Hotline Bling.”

That trend has kept up with “Destiny 2.” In addition to the dances I mentioned above, you can get your guardian to:

• Take a selfie.

• Disco a la John Travolta.

• Do two separate bad imitations of chickens from “Arrested Development.”

• Emulate Bruno Mars’ smooth moves from the “Uptown Funk” video.

• Unleash your inner “Monty Python” with a John Cleese-style silly walk.

• Act like the meme-tastic confused Vincent Vega from “Pulp Fiction.”

• Vogue like I’m in a Madonna video.

With Tuesday’s expansion, Queen Bey will make her presence felt in a major way as Titans, Warlocks and Hunters put a ring on it all over the Tower. My first thought was how producer Bungie must have shelled out a lot of money in licensing to Beyonce for that dance. And that got me wondering how much money Bungie has paid to all those pop-culture touchstones over the years.

After doing some research, I can make a pretty good guess: Not a single penny.

Trademarking dances

Go back to the third and fourth paragraph. In the game, those dances are named “Timely Dance,” “Shuffle Dance,” “Overnight Dance” and “Floss Dance” (hilarious). When players select and activate those dances, the on-screen character moves according to their own beat. The music doesn’t change, in other words. My Guardian just dances.

And that is the key point, according to trademark law. According to the blog Law Street, trademarks and copyrights require the context of music. If I heard “Party ROCK!” every time I fired up the Shuffle Dance, then royalties are getting paid to LMFAO — or should be.

Kaye Lewis, the founder and director of Midwest Regional Ballet, said it is very difficult to trademark a dance move.

“It’s all movement derived from a specific thing,” Lewis said. “A leap is a leap. You might add an arm movement or a different leg line, but you’re still just doing a grand jete.”

Dance seems to have a lot in common with magic when it comes to trademarking and copyrighting. For example: More than a century ago, the creator of a center deal (a method to deal cards out of the center of a deck) is said to have used his move on unwitting players in Joplin gambling houses such as the House of Lords. If I were to create such a method that used only a normal deck of cards, I could not get a copyright or a trademark because it is a method of movement and manipulation.

I could get a patent on a device that did the same thing. But I could not patent a movement done with my own two hands.

Lewis dances on both sides of the trademark line. She could copyright some of the unique presentations and choreography behind the adaptation of other works the company has performed, such as “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Alice in Wonderland.” But she must also tread carefully around adapting existing copyrights — the company had to change the title of a “Moulin Rouge”-inspired program because of that.

And that’s for full presentations. When it comes to choreography, some dances have indeed been copyrighted or protected, including ballet movements from George Balanchine and dances from Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille and Bob Fosse (Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance is heavily inspired by Fosse’s work — look up “Mexican Breakfast”).

But there’s many, many moves under the sun.

“The ballet dictionary is huge,” Lewis said. “There are so many techniques and steps.”

In some ways, it’s heartbreaking that, like sleight of hand magicians, creators of dance moves will struggle to place legal protections on their work. The most they can do is rely on the unspoken codes of ethics practiced by others in the same field.

But dancing is also such an instinctual form of expression on the same level as speaking, to me. Slapping a trademark on a dance move would feel like slapping a trademark on a new word.

So I won’t feel too guilty every time I do the “Single Ladies” dance — err, I mean the “Flaunting Dance” — in “Destiny 2.” I’ll probably spam that emote to the annoyance of my fireteam members.

Joe Hadsall is web editor for the Globe. Contact him at

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.