News & Politics

Beyonce vs. Brussels: Is the World's Biggest Pop Star a Plagiarist?

A question of intellectual property rights.

Is Beyonce Knowles a plagiarist? Sure looks like it.

 

The dance world has been aflame this week over a thirty second YouTube video made by Studio Brussel, a Belgian radio station. It intercuts clips of Beyonce’s October 7 Countdown video, directed by Queen Bey and Adria Petty (yes, daughter of rocker Tom) and the 1997 film that musician and filmmaker Thierry de May made of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas. The comparison video has gotten close to a million and a half hits.

The copying is unmistakable. Gorgeous women dressed in loose grey undershirts and little white anklets pace and spin against the architectural grid of an empty industrial building with multipaned windows; their regimented patterns are punctuated with a nervous twitch as each woman pulls her shirt off her shoulder and yanks it back up and runs her fingers through her hair. There’s an identical relation of “soloist” to “ensemble” and identical camera angles.

There’s one key difference: Beyonce plays with her clothes and runs her fingers through her hair as a grinding sex kitten, not a preoccupied schoolgirl.

Yesterday, Beyonce finally admitted as much. She said Countdown was “inspired” by De Keersmaeker’s work, but claimed that her video had “many references” and other intentions.

What really riles is the star’s assertion that Countdown “could generate publicity for Rosas danst Rosas, and that presumably De Keersmaeker should be grateful for the “tribute.” There’s no question that the YouTube clips of the original 1997 film, based on a stage work first produced in 1983, are getting more traffic this week than they have in years. Minimalist European modern dance, even work as award-winning, famous and compelling as this one is, doesn’t hit the pop charts.

Beyonce is wise in the ways of publicity but publicity doesn’t excuse piracy. Just ask Shepherd Fairey, who dissembled for years about his appropriation of photographer Manny Garcia’s portrait of Barack Obama. Was the color-infused stencil of the future President’s face a more memorable image than the photograph that came across the AP wire from an unimportant 2006 National Press Club event? Of course. Was it plagiarism? Well, after two years in court, a monetary settlement and shared rights to sell Obama Hope posters, the answer wasn’t determined.

We’re dealing here with the swamp of fair use law in the age of sampling. It’s clearly disingenuous for Adria Petty to praise De Keersmaeker’s work as “refreshing, interesting and timeless” and to add “I've always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.” There’s a profound difference in the way Beyonce “pays tribute” to Diana Ross and Bridget Bardot with her cat’s eye eye makeup and sequined minidress and the straight replication of choreographic material.

There’s no reason an ordinary Beyonce fan would have any reason to know that the images lifted from Rosas danst Rosas had not been choreographed expressly for the star by some high-paid Los Angeles choreographer. (Yes. There are high paid choreographers. They make music videos for pop stars.) After all, she doesn’t indicate that she’s quoting De Keersmaeker anywhere. In her public statement she seems to imply that a work like the film of Rosas is so old (14!) that it couldn’t possibly be contemporary and that it was so obscure (they thought the work was German) that nobody would notice. Certainly nobody who mattered.

If the “pulling blouse off the shoulder” move that appears earlier in Beyonce’s video had been the only reference to Rosas, frankly, no one would have noticed, or cared. A single gesture can pop up anywhere; many dance forms build on previous references that are there for the cognoscenti to relish. But that’s not what Beyonce did in Countdown. In a video that runs 3:33 minutes, Rosas quotes are a full 39 seconds (the chair section at the end of the video quotes from Rosas, too); for a music video, that is a great deal.

We’re also dealing with the difference between the relatively poorly-remunerated world of concert dance, even when that work is state-supported as it has been in Europe, and the oodles of money made by the multidivisional enterprise that is Beyonce. Fair use probably applies when a group of kids make a YouTube video quoting Rosas as they dance to Madonna’s Like a Virgin – although both De Keersmaeker and Madonna would be within their rights to ask that YouTube take it down.

When a commercial performer with a big budget creates a commercial product, the stakes are different. On Monday, when Anne Maria De Keersmaeker issued her statement, she stressed “I was asked if I were now selling out Rosas into the commercial circuit.”

This is important. Having control about how repurposed material is used, even years after its creation, is part of why intellectual property laws exist. If De Keersmaeker had been asked by Beyonce and her team of lawyers whether she wanted to license some of her choreography for a music video, just as rock stars have licensed their back catalogs to advertisers for cars and beer, she might have agreed to do it. Maybe not. After all, De Keersmaeker notes that her work was “seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don't see any edge to it. It’s seductive in an entertaining consumerist way.” The point is, it would have been her decision, and if she had decided to participate, she would have gotten paid for her contribution.

A lawsuit is being considered. I don’t know enough about the rules governing intellectual property in Belgium to predict what will happen. Many in the arts world are suggesting that Beyonce respond to this impropriety by becoming a very generous and very public financial sponsor of contemporary dance and dance on camera.

But even the imdb database soliciting copies of a movie poster automatically asks “Own the rights?”

Debra Cash, a frequent contributor to ArtsFuse.org, is Scholar in Residence at the Bates Dance Festival.
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