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On TikTok, who owns a viral dance?

“Renegade” and the thorny ethics of the world’s most popular dance memes.

Haley Sharpe, the creator of the popular “Say So” dance, in her bedroom.
Stacy Kranitz for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The Renegade is the biggest dance in the world right now. Lizzo has done the Renegade. YouTuber David Dobrik, Kourtney Kardashian, and her son all did the Renegade together. Two of the kids from Stranger Things did it, too.

If you’re not on TikTok, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what the Renegade even is. In short, it’s a quick, multiple-step dance that incorporates popular moves like the woah, the wave, and the dab to the song “Lottery” by Atlanta rapper K-Camp, and it’s everywhere. Seemingly everyone has done the Renegade on TikTok — except for the girl who invented it.

She’s a 14-year-old in Atlanta named Jalaiah Harmon, and back in September she posted an Instagram video of herself and her friend Kaliyah performing the moves that are all over TikTok right now. A dancer with more than 200,000 followers under the username @global.jones brought it to TikTok in October, but neither Jalaiah nor Kaliyah received credit from any of the influencers who made it a viral phenomenon.

The Renegade is just one of the dozens of viral internet dances whose choreographers have gone largely unacknowledged as they take over the world. On TikTok, where dancing in place in front of a camera has become a de facto language for everyone from celebrities to regular teens in their bedrooms, it’s a particularly timely subject. One of the most perennial questions of the past decade on social media — who owns a viral dance? — has naturally resurfaced on a platform where dancing has the potential to make you a millionaire.

Dances are virtually impossible to legally claim as one’s own. The history of copyrighting dance in comparison to other art forms is quite recent: The Copyright Law of 1976 was the first to allow choreographers to protect their work, but even then, it was intended for ballets and other lengthy and prestigious compositions. It does not include protections for “ordinary motor activities, social dances, commonplace movements or gestures, or athletic movements” — thus excluding yoga positions, ballroom dances, or, say, a celebratory touchdown dance. In short, it’s why you’re allowed to do the moonwalk and the macarena without anybody suing you.

These questions have never actually been litigated in court, though. In a piece for The Verge on dance-stealing lawsuits against Epic, the video game company that owns the massively popular game Fortnite, Nick Statt explains that no one really knows the legality of Fortnite’s homages. The company has been sued by several creators for using their dances in the game: There’s the rapper 2 Milly for the Milly Rock, “Backpack kid” Russell Horning for his flossing move, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actor Alfonso Ribeiro for, what else, the Carlton.

It’s likely that these lawsuits may not get far. “If an artist could claim a copyright in an individual step, it may make free expression with the human body prohibitively difficult without legal risk,” Statt explains. “It also opens up all sorts of thorny edge cases around street performance and other public forms of dance, as well as the actions of countless people on social media, YouTube, and other online video channels.”

If the lawsuits continue, they could end up being historic and precedent-setting cases that would affect the future of dance and the internet at large, although most of them have been on pause for nearly a year with no clear updates.

No one is planning to sue over the Renegade or any single TikTok dance, probably. The debate around who owns a viral dance, at least on TikTok, is more about crediting etiquette. When a popular TikTok celebrity does a dance, do they have the obligation to tag the less-famous person who invented it?

It’s a persistent question on the app, one that even celebrities have weighed in on: 17-year-old Disney Channel actress Skai Jackson recently asked why it was important to credit viral dance creators since “you should be happy that millions of people are doing the dance lol.” Creators, meanwhile, responded that artistic credit “translates to massive opportunities for creators if the right people know who did it.”

Consider Haley Sharpe, the 16-year-old in Huntsville, Alabama, I profiled in October as she returned to high school after summer break as a minor TikTok celebrity. Back then, she’d had about 100,000 followers, but after she created a viral dance to Doja Cat’s “Say So” in December, that number shot up to more than a million. She’s since been able to go to LA and meet with fellow TikTok-famous teens, and was hired to dance in a show on the Instagram platform IGTV.

“I definitely think you should credit [choreographers] because if someone sees my dance, and then they make a video of the dance and credit me, people will know that it’s mine,” Haley says. “But if they don’t, then it just starts a big ripple effect of not crediting.”

She specifically mentions the Renegade creators as an example of what happens when no one credits creators. “That one has been everywhere, and the original people killed it and are getting no credit.” Haley, who is a trained dancer, says she even saw people doing the Renegade at a competitive dance convention.

Part of the difficulty in crediting dancers is endemic to the TikTok platform. On TikTok, it’s supremely difficult to determine whose video came first. The feed is not chronological, timestamps are not included with videos, and hashtags are sorted by popularity, not time. That means that if someone with more followers steals your dance, it’s likely theirs will be the one that blows up. Musical artists, on the other hand, have made fortunes after going viral on TikTok, in part because TikTok’s ability to add and save sounds make it (for the most part) clear whose song is in the background.

It’s different on other major platforms. Twitter, for example, clearly shows the date at which a tweet was posted, and a search bar that makes it easy to suss out tweet-stealers. Tumblr’s reblog function and Facebook’s share settings allow people to repost content on their own feeds while still giving credit to the original creator.

Instagram made things much messier. Reposting others’ photos has typically amounted to screenshotting, which makes giving credit a choice rather than a standard. As Instagram proliferated with meme accounts that grew explosively by stealing content from all over the web — other people’s tweets, Tumblr posts, comments, and videos — a reckoning soon followed. Media brands like Fuck Jerry and The Fat Jew, which amassed profitable empires out of stolen jokes, were forced to address the #FuckFuckJerry movement in early 2019. Most major meme accounts now at least include the Twitter handle of the person who tweeted the original joke, if not ask permission from them first, or risk outrage in the comments section.

That, really, is what TikTokers want: the clout, the followers, and the attention that can come with coming up with an original idea. Do TikTok celebrities like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, who post videos of themselves doing viral dances to millions of followers, have a responsibility to find the original creators — a task that can often be quite difficult and time-consuming — and give them credit? It’s a much murkier question than joke-stealing, which the comedy community has pretty cut-and-dry ethics about. Every performance of a certain dance is a fundamentally different piece of content, after all, one that includes artistic labor on the part of the supposed dance-stealer, too.

Ultimately, users on TikTok will have to come up with their own method of properly shouting out choreographers, particularly when the dancers who go uncredited are often the ones with fewer followers, and who likely don’t have lucrative talent deals with professional management companies. As TikTok democratizes the ability to go viral, it’s important that there’s still a digital paper trail.