The entertainment and gaming industries can be incredibly harsh, unfair and ruthless. But one thing I can’t stand more than anything is their blatant theft from hard working PoC artists for a quick buck.
What is Fortnite?
If you have been living under a rock (or somehow avoided anyone under the age of 22 in the past year), Fortnite is one of the fastest growing games in the world. In this free-to-play game, you and 99 other players are dropped into a large map and must kill to survive with four other teammates. There is no grand story or even subtle lore to why and how this situation began in the game, it just is. With its cartoonish design, easy accessibility and being one of the first games to have a polished version of the battle-royale game type, it’s become a staple of the modern gaming scene. And that success has also shown in its amassing more than $1 billion since its release in September of 2017.
Fortnite’s Bread n’ Butter
So how does a successful game make up its profit without putting a price tag on it? The answer is simple: monetization. Game monetization is the use of in-game purchases for your gaming experience, such as weapons, skins, tools and what will be the main focus of this article, the emotes.
Emotes are an easy way to personalize a gaming experience in a social, multiplayer online platform. It can be used to greet someone, celebrate, gloat or just show you’re having a good time.
These emotes can be bought on the game using real-world money. The Milly Rock is included in these emotes, but is labeled as “Swipe It” instead. A new player can only buy these skins and emotes after spending as low as $10 or as high as $100 for an add-on purchase pack for the in-game currency of “V-Bucks.” An emote like “Swipe It” costs about 500 “V-Bucks,” or just about $5.
Aside from the name, the dance is verbatim what 2 Milly invented in his 2014 music video “Milly Rock x 2 Milly”
Other Examples of Theft
2 Milly’s case is only one example of Epic Games’ Fortnite using people of color artists and culture for profit. 2 Milly’s lawsuit cites several other dances from black celebrities and artists who were given no credit for their name or likeness.
More emotes available for purchase include Snoop Dogs, “Drop it like it’s hot” dance which was renamed “Tidy.” Actor Donald Faison, who played Turk on the 2000s show “Scrubs,” made a lip-sync dance to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” that was used and renamed “Dance Moves.” Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton on the 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” had an iconic dance to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” It’s known on Fortnite as “Fresh.”
Actors and musicians aren’t the only examples either. Internet personality Marlon Webb’s jogging dance from his video of “Band of the Bold” that became a popular meme was copied and renamed “Best Mates.”
There is no difference to these moves from the ones choreographed and performed that came out other than the names. Fortnite is known for keeping up with trends and sometimes even setting them. In American society that’s done by looking at mostly black culture and using what’s been popular to gain notoriety.
Why Steal From PoC Artists?
These artists were not asked permission to have their dances included, nor given a warning before they’d see it on the screen of the game. And they aren’t the only ones being taken advantage of either, though probably the most. Fortnite has a skin in the game resembling Keanu Reeves’s unstoppable dog-loving character in the film “John Wick” that is just labeled as “The Reaper.” They also have an emote for “Ride the Pony” that rips off Korean popstar Psy’s “Gangnam Style” with no credit.
But Epic Games knew it couldn’t get away with stealing the likeness of Thanos from Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Infinity Wars” earlier this year and made a deal with the entertainment giant under Disney to have a promotional game mode. Why did Fortnite feel the need to ask Disney’s permission to use their intellectual properties and not these other artists? It can be safe to assume that they feared the wrath of Disney (as we all do from time to time).
They see the media giant as a threat, a bear not to be poked. Although they choose to ignore the growing outcry against this practice has been bubbling since the game’s rise to popularity. Even artists who aren’t involved in the issue have spoken up against it.
Fortnite should put the actual rap songs behind the dances that make so much money as Emotes. Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) July 13, 2018
History of Stealing Black/PoC Culture
Unfortunately, this is nothing new and just another example of the entertainment and gaming industry’s exploitation of hard working artists of color. Although other races and cultures have been appropriated, I feel the majority seem to be from black artists in the American entertainment/media industries. These people put their best into music, film or comedy only to be taken advantage of and see no profit from it.
I’m not trying to say Fortnite went in to create this game with the intent to steal from predominantly black artists in order to reach critical acclaim. However, when this company was faced with that option, it didn’t seem like there was any hesitation.
American Black culture has been one of the strongest driving forces of new and innovative entertainment in the dance and music industries for the last century. We were responsible for a wave of music genres that defined nearly every generation of the 20th Century. Ragtime, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, rap, funk, trap music and disco.
It was all started by black artists working for pennies a day. When they finally started to get recognized, white producers and artists stole their songs, their lyrics and dances and packaged them up to sell to white audiences at a higher price and go on to be immortalized while the black artists responsible are left to die in poverty and obscurity.
Disney made millions using the 1961 song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens in “The Lion King” from an original recording from South African musician Solomon Linda. The song was first recorded in 1939 as a traditional Zulu hunting chant, “Mbube,” through a South African label run by an Italian immigrant. The song was incorrectly translated to “Wimoweh” by American singer Pete Seeger and his group “The Weavers” who took total credit for the song. After more back-alley deals, the song was passed around until it was in one of the most beloved children’s animation films in history with no royalties going to Linda. Thankfully after a 2000s lawsuit, Linda’s descendants received a share of the song’s revenue.
Back then, companies and other artists did this because they knew they’d get away with it. Because the performers knew the people they were stealing from weren’t white and knew this world wouldn’t defend them. It was easier to steal from these artists and gain success from their work since they’d been doing it for centuries. It’s a learned skill that I believe persists in industries that owe much of their success through such disgusting practices. This is more than just cultural appropriation, it’s absolute theft.
Sadly, copyright laws aren’t perfect and they don’t always protect the ones that truly need it. Effective laws for video games are still in their infancy because many legislatures barely understand the gaming industry. But it needs to be said that there has never been a medium like gaming before.
It’s one of the only times a medium can to individually sell intellectual properties like dances as if they’re t-shirts in a gift shop. In my opinion that’s the greatest argument for why this is a problem. There is a literal, quantifiable way to calculate the least those dances have given this game revenue.
Not to mention the amount of free publicity these dances give for the game. There are countless videos of people who love the game dancing to the more popular emotes. The dances—molded and planned to be popular by their original creators/performers—are used as a meme for fellow Fortnite players and indirectly attracts potential players.
However, U.S. Copyright Office had a 2017 Circular that cited dances similar to things like the Milly Rock as a dance that isn’t protected by copyright law. Suspiciously, this document came out just about the same time as Fortnite…but that’d be a different story altogether.
“The U.S. Copyright Office cannot register short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.” – Copyright Registration of Choreography and Pantomime.
With this distinction, it’s difficult to see 2 Milly coming out on top unless it’s taken to the Supreme Court. But I definitely hope they do.
As both a creative and a person of color, I am constantly worried about my own work that I’ve spent years crafting being stolen and used by some big company. What makes it worse is not that someone steals your work but the fact that it’s so well known and beloved without your name attached.
It makes an artist hesitate before wanting to put their work out there for the fear of losing the one chance they have of reaching success. Copyright laws are here for a reason, but many times they aren’t used for their real purpose. I feel we should do something about that.
As much as people won’t admit it, Fortnite is a powerhouse of success in gaming and internet culture that will last for generations. One day people will look at it the same way we look at Super Mario Brothers, Doom, or Pac-man. It’s just one of those games that comes by and changes everything. But we have the chance in a world that has shown to move when we move together to change this.
If you are tired of artists of color not getting their dues, of prominent and talented brothers and sisters getting shafted and pushed to the side while their work is used as a stepping stone for a company and property that does nothing for the PoC community, then let them know you feel that way. Write to Epic Games, call them out on twitter and tell them they should give credit where credit is due.