On Monday, Alfonso Ribeiro filed a lawsuit against Epic Games, alleging that the company appropriated his intellectual property as well as his likeness in character animations for the popular video game Fortnite.
The actor, who played Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, popularized a decidedly corny, ludicrous dance known as the Carlton. In December 2017—a couple of months before Fortnite achieved peak dominance in popular culture—Epic Games turned the Carlton into a character animation. Fortnite is free to download and play, but the game charges players for customizations, including character dance animations known as emotes. For Fortnite, Epic Games will often animate dance crazes, such as BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” dance, the Floss, the Milly Rock, and the Carlton. Fortnite players can pay money—generally less than $10—to equip the Carlton dance animation, which Fortnite bills as the “Fresh” dance—a vague reference to The Fresh Prince. Epic Games didn’t just animate the Carlton dance—it modeled the animation on footage of Ribeiro doing the Carlton on Dancing With the Stars. But Epic Games hasn’t licensed the footage or specifically acknowledged Ribeiro. Fortnite generates $1.5 million in revenue per day, and Epic Games pays Ribeiro nothing.
Ribeiro says Epic Games has “unfairly profited” from his “protected creative expression.” In the past, Ribeiro has acknowledged Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Murphy, and Courtney Cox as inspirations for the Carlton dance, which Ribeiro improvised during a Fresh Prince taping. Still, Ribeiro’s dance has, in the quarter-century since “Christmas Show” first aired, become a distinct, popular phenomenon. Indeed, Epic Games tends to adopt dances based on their popularity. The entertainers behind the dances—including a few who are Fortnite players themselves—have gradually adopted a defensive stance against Epic Games. BlocBoy JB has criticized Epic Games for turning the “Shoot” dance into an emote without paying or crediting him. Resentfully, Donald Faison has recalled Epic Games contacting him to ask about the choreography for his “Poison” dance on Scrubs only to incorporate his dance into Fortnite without attribution. Chance the Rapper has said the company should license the songs associated with the relevant dance crazes, since the dances aren’t copyrighted material. (Instead, Epic Games sets Fortnite emotes to original music that the company produces for the game.) “Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them,” Chance argued. Alternatively, Ribeiro now seeks to monetize his Carlton dance through litigation. It’s a catchy notion. On Tuesday, Russell Horning—a.k.a. Backpack Kid, the Georgia teen who created and popularized the Floss dance—filed a lawsuit against Epic Games. The rapper 2 Milly, who created the Milly Rock dance, is suing Epic too.
Ribeiro, 2 Milly, and Backpack Kid are leading an artists’ revolt that Epic Games would have ideally avoided months ago. In March, Drake and gamer Ninja streamed Fortnite together for a couple of hours, and Drake expressed some frustration with Epic Games for declining to incorporate dance elements of his “Hotline Bling” music video into Fortnite emotes. Drake—the biggest rapper in the world—characterized Epic Games as surprisingly nonresponsive to his interest in the game and to the prospect of cross-promotion. In retrospect, Epic Games leaving Drake hanging was a worrisome sign of the company’s reluctance to engage with creators through commercial agreements and mutual benefit. Instead, Epic takes.
It’s not just the emotes. It could be argued that Fortnite’s battle royale mode appropriates whole game design elements from PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, the title which Fortnite overtook in popularity and acclaim. “We are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known,” Bluehole vice president Chang Han Kim said last year, prefiguring Ribeiro’s objections. In January, Bluehole filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Epic Games. Bluehole dropped the lawsuit in June, and it’s unclear whether Epic Games paid a settlement to Bluehole. Insofar as the company has addressed these similarities at all, Epic Games has stressed the broader tradition to which several video game battle royale modes belong: Fortnite and PUBG are both informally indebted to Koushun Takami, the novelist who coined “battle royale” and pioneered the concept a couple of decades ago. It’s true, and it’s a pretense for Epic Games to play coy with the more distinct elements that Fortnite appropriates from other creators, including the studio’s competitors.
The corporate story of Fortnite is a story of appropriation, if not exactly theft. Appropriation is, as always, a complex and dynamic concern. It’s about art, but it’s also about law. It’s about credit, but it’s also about money. It’s about the malleability of all culture, but it’s also about the social hierarchies that tend to determine who profits from cultural exchange, and who doesn’t. It’s about creative influence, but it’s also about power dynamics. So far, Epic Games has proved more powerful than anyone might have imagined a video-game studio could be. For more than a year now, Epic Games has neutralized scrutiny through sheer popularity. Drake briefly raised hopes among fans to turn Fortnite into a playground for their favorite entertainers. Now, it’s a battleground. The dream of a “Hotline Bling” emote is dead, and Epic Games—the no. 1 victor royale—is dancing all over its grave.