|September 27th, 2013
In general, dance compositions are eligible for copyright and this copyright, like all copyright nowadays, is automatic. But it's not clear whether an individual contra dance, as a series of standard figures intended to be danced in a social setting, falls under copyright. There's nothing written on contra dance specifically, but I did find Line Dancers & Copyright (pdf), by the non-profit Australian Copyright Council. Contra dance is a lot like line dance, and Australian and US copyright law are very similar, so I think this is still relevant. It claims there are two criteria, both of which must be satisfied:
- Is it a dramatic work?
- Is it original?
Even if a contra dance did count as a "dramatic work," how much original composition does it represent? Is it like a chord progression, which is generally not copyrightable or is it more like a melody, which definitely is? This 2012 statement of policy from the US Copyright Office has some details:
Simple dance routines do not represent enough original choreographic authorship to be copyrightable. Id. Moreover, the selection, coordination or arrangement of dance steps does not transform a compilation of dance steps into a choreographic work unless the resulting work amounts to an integrated and coherent compositional whole. The Copyright Office takes the position that a selection, coordination, or arrangement of functional physical movements such as sports movements, exercises, and other ordinary motor activities alone do not represent the type of authorship intended to be protected under the copyright law as a choreographic work. — sourceThe threshold for "originality" in copyright is very low, but at least some dances seem unlikely to meet it. For example, the Larry Jennings dance Thursday Night Special #1 and Gene Hubert's The Nice Combination are identical except that one ends with "long lines" while the other uses "star left". There are only a small number of standard eight count figures that put the dancers back where they started; how much originality is there in picking one versus another?
On the other hand, it could be that the first dance that had people swing their partner on the sides of the set simultaneously , as part of the shift towards equal-turn dancing, would be sufficiently original. Judging originality is very tricky.
The ACC information sheet concludes:
A line dance which is merely an obvious collection of commonplace steps may not be original enough to be protected by copyright. On the other hand, a line dance which contains stock elements may be protected by copyright if it is an original arrangement of the steps, provided it is also a dramatic work (for example, it is a choreographic show).So I'm not going to worry about posting dances online, or calling dances written by others. If an author asks me to stop, of course I would, though it sounds like that wouldn't be legally required.
(Note: I'm not a lawyer, just interested in this stuff.)
Update 2013-09-27: I'm now not sure a "choreographic work" needs to qualify as a "dramatic work" to fall under copyright. This may be a way that US and Australian law differ, but the copyright act claims to cover both choreographic and dramatic works.
There's some pertinent discussion in Mary Dart's thesis under Ownership of Dances (includes a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the number of possible contradances, and another in footnote 2).
 Which I think was Tony Parkes' Shadrack's Delight (1972).