Ownership of choreography dance moves is a tricky subject. When a choreographer puts their body into motion and pen to paper, they’re creating an original expressive piece that takes their personal experience and creativity and translates it into a work of art. Once it’s put into a tangible medium, you can apply copyright protections to the piece.
So how could there be any question about owns that piece? In this article, we’re going to take a look at a couple of different scenarios that studios and choreographers might run into when they work together creatively.
Scenario 1: Hiring a Choreographer
In this scenario, you are a studio owner (or the guest choreographer who is being hired to create the work). Some of the big topics you’ll want to cover are:
- A timeline for delivery (when is the performance, and how long will the dance take to learn?)
- Who will teach the choreography (is the choreographer also coming to class to teach the moves?)
- Services (what all is being requested of the choreographer, or what all do they offer?)
- Pricing (based on the services, how much should the payment be? Is this choreographer part of a larger professional community, and can they then ask for a higher price?)
And finally, ownership of the material. In this scenario, the guest choreographer is being hired as a freelancer. That means that after their job is completed, they won’t continue to have any ties to your studio.
Now it comes down to having an honest conversation with the choreographer about your expectations and theirs as well. As a studio owner, are you expecting to take this choreography (which you have essentially commissioned for your students) and use it again in the future? Are you also expecting that your choreographer won’t later work for another studio and produce a dance that’s very similar to yours?
Well, it depends on this honest conversation going on. Choreographers are professionals, and their ability to create an expressive and elaborate piece is why you’re hiring them in the first place. They may very well expect to reuse or recycle parts of one piece when making a different one, since those parts are their own creative works. They may also expect for you to use their work once, for a singular performance, and to then ask for additional permissions in the future to perform it again.
So, while this conversation may be honest and productive, you can clearly see how it could get a little tense with different opinions about the work. As the studio owner, make a list of your priorities and decide the most important factors in this project:
- Does the choreographer make great work, and are they worth hiring consistently?
- Do competing studios also hire this choreographer, and would you be worried about similar choreography showing up in their recital or at competition?
- Is this performance theme very specific, where this choreography might not fit with other themes in the near future?
As the choreographer, make a list of your own priorities as well!
- If you work locally, are you trying to build relationships and secure future contracts?
- If you work within a larger community, do you need the ability to recycle parts or entire pieces?
- As an artist, do you expect for your work to remain your own, and for studio owners to ask to use your work in the future?
- As a business professional, how can you maximize the income you can get from a single piece of work?
Studio owners, be sure check out the choreographer priority list. Choreographers, be sure check out the studio owner list! When everyone is on the same page and both parties’ goals are clear, it’s way easier to find common ground and find room for compromise.
Very important: don’t rush into hiring a choreographer or starting to make choreography without having this discussion, and putting it into writing. We can’t stress this enough: MAKE A CONTRACT. And that includes having your legal counsel check the contract fully before it’s signed.
With clear language about who, what, when, where, and for how much, any potential disagreement can point back to the original contract for clarification.
Scenario 2: Teachers Creating Choreography
Maybe your studio has talented teachers who choreograph their classes’ dances: sweet!!! So who owns their work?
Again, this is a conversation to be had in advance of the dance season, ideally before a teacher contract is signed. Generally, choreography produced by a teacher on staff at a studio belongs to the studio. That teacher is creating pieces that directly translate into their job at the studio.
Can there be exceptions? Of course. A person who makes a creative piece will want to feel like they have ownership over their work. So how can you, as a studio owner, make that work?
Back to the priorities. For studios:
- Does the teacher make great work, and are they a valuable member of your staff?
- Does your teacher work in a dance capacity anywhere else, and would you be worried about similar choreography showing up in another studio’s recital or at competition?
- Besides at your studio, where else could your choreography dance moves be used?
- Do you create choreography on the side, and do you need your choreography dance moves to be available for other clients?
- On that note, do you have a non-compete agreement with your studio already in place? What does it say about choreography?
This honest conversation between teachers and studio owners has a different feel to it than the freelance conversation. These teachers will be working at the studio for an extended period of time, and are directly invested in the studio’s success.
Probably the best question for a studio owner to ask: “Why do you need your choreography to be used elsewhere?”
An honest answer will set up the rest of the conversation. Maybe the teacher wants to work freelance on the side but not compete with your studio. Maybe the teacher wants to have a choreography portfolio, for a future career decision. Maybe the teacher needs to move in the near future and wants to be able to take the choreography along for future work.
As a studio owner, if you trust your teachers, these all sound like pretty legitimate reasons! And to show your support and build a closer relationship with your teachers, it could definitely be worth it to find some room for compromise.