Beyonce’s new music video for “Countdown” was instantly praised for its iconic pop-cultural references. One blog, The Hairpin, announced: “Bey channels Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Beals, and Marcel Marceau (right?). Hypnotic.” But a controversy over the video has arisen because Beyonce also channels Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
De Keersmaeker is a leading Belgian choreographer. The video draws upon striking choreography from two of her dances (copyrightable works), Rosas Danst Rosas (1983) and Achterland (1994). A good comparison of these works with Beyonce’s video can be seen at The Hollywood Reporter.
De Keersmaeker said that she had not been asked permission. The Daily Telegraph quotes her: “I didn’t know anything about this. I’m not mad, but this is plagiarism.”
What is also unfortunate is that the inspiration was drawn without any credit being given to De Keersmaeker. The co-director of the video, Adria Petty, had told MTV: ‘I brought Beyoncé a number or references and we picked some out together. Most were German modern dance references, believe it or not.’ She told GQ that she had intended to credit the choreographers, but it was cut from the final video.
So how strong are these “references” and would they qualify as copyright infringement? According to Petty, “In the end very little of Keersmaeker’s actual choreography inspired the finished result.” [GQ] But the reference to De Keersmaeker is instantly recognizable. Beyonce might not fair too well under a test for copyright infringement, given the originality of De Keersmaeker’s choreography and the elements used in the music video, including the similar costumes and set designs. This is a commercial music video and Beyonce is one of the best-selling artists of today, so it would be difficult for the video to qualify as fair use. However, the video uses different music, shows many other choreographic sequences, and uses only a small portion of De Keersmaeker’s work. It might not be infringement or might even be transformative use. These appropriations/homages are tricky.
Earlier this year, Beyonce was criticized for another alleged plagiarism when she imitated the performance of Italian pop star Lorella Cuccarini. Perhaps one should be wary before attempting to imitate Beyonce on the dance floor…