Two in-demand fitness trainers are facing off in a new battle over their respective choreography-based fitness methods. According to the complaint that they filed in a California federal court on Monday, Tracy Anderson Mind and Body, LLC and T.A. STUDIO NEW YORK LLC (“Tracy Anderson” or “TA”) claim that Megan Roup and her company Sculpt Society are on the hook for copyright infringement, false designation of origin, and breach of contract, as “a significant number” of the fitness videos they make available to Sculpt Society members “infringe [TA’s] copyrights” and “were created using confidential information” that Roup accessed while employed as a Tracy Anderson trainer.
Setting the stage in the complaint (as first reported by TFL), Tracy Anderson asserts that its eponymous founder is the owner of registered copyrights to “various media, including DVDs created by and featuring Ms. Anderson, that express, relate to, or are based on the TA Method,” a “revolutionary choreography protocol made up of custom and specific movements, sequences, and routines that uniquely combines choreography, fitness, and cardiovascular movement.” The New York-based company – whose clients have included a laundry list of big-name stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna – alleges that Roup became well-acquainted with the TA Method, including “training materials [and] choreography transcriptions,” as well as “business information, customer lists, and operating procedures, such as specialized customer intake methods,” during her tenure as a trainer for the plaintiffs from 2011 to 2017.
“In short, Roup had access to all materials necessary to replicate the TA Method and related business, and she wasted no time in doing so,” the plaintiffs assert. Specifically, Tracy Anderson claims that before Roup quit in February 2017 to launch Sculpt Society, which offers up “choreography-based fitness and mat movement classes and directly competes with [TA],” she started “using the confidential information, and access thereto, to plan or create the choreography routines, business plan and structure, and promotional materials that would form the foundation of and help launch [the Sculpt Society].”
Despite signing a trainer agreement in 2011, which “prohibits trainers, including Roup, from using or disclosing company ‘confidential Information’” and which “expressly survives a trainer’s termination of employment,” Tracy Anderson asserts that in launching her own company, Roup has actually made use of such information, and “capitalized on the years of research, money, and sweat equity [Ms.] Anderson and the plaintiffs put into developing the TA Method.” (Interestingly, Tracy Anderson does not lodge a trade secret misappropriation claim against the defendants in connection with any of the confidential info that they allegedly misappropriated. The routines, themselves, could not be claimed (because they are not confidential), but “business information, customer lists, and operating procedures, such as specialized customer intake methods,” seem as though they could fall within this realm if adequately kept secret by TA.)
To make matters worse, TA alleges that the defendants are peddling “false and/or misleading public statements and advertising that creates the false impression that Roup, on her own, created the choreography that comprise[s] the [Sculpt Society] Method,” thereby, giving rise to a likelihood of consumer confusion as to “the origin, nature, source, and development” of the Method. TA claims that the defendants further cause consumer confusion by “purposefully conceal[ing] Roup’s training from and association with [TA] from the public so that Roup can claim to be the original creator of the choreography movements, sequences, and routines that comprise the Sculpt Society Method.”
And still yet, the plaintiffs argue that such potential for confusion is compounded by Roup’s “structur[ing] of the Sculpt Society Method like the TA Method.” For instance, TA asserts that “certain of the Sculpt Society Method programs are structured on 28-day or 30-day calendars, like Anderson’s 30-Day Method,” and include “pre- and postnatal programs, and programs that focus on certain body parts, such as the hips or glutes, just like the TA Method does.” (This seems like it could be a bit of a stretch given that no shortage of fitness apps structure their offerings – and consumers are accustomed to seeing offerings being structured – in 30 day windows with workouts offered/organized by areas of the body.)
Setting out claims of copyright infringement, TA points to a number of the defendants’ videos, which allegedly “include Roup or [Sculpt Society] employees performing choreography movements, sequences, and routines that are substantially similar to those depicted in the [the videos for which TA has copyright registrations], and therefore, constitute copyright infringements.” For instance, TA claims that the defendants’ videos titled “30Min Sculpt 07,” “30Min Sculpt 08,” “30Min Sculpt 09,” and “30Min Sculpt w/ Matt 22” include “choreography movements, sequences, and routines that are substantially similar to those depicted in [TA’s] Day 21-30 portion of the DVD titled ‘Metamorphosis: Glutecentric,’” for which TA maintains a copyright registration.
Additionally, Tracy Anderson claims that the defendants have run afoul of the Lanham Act by “intentionally mak[ing] false and/or misleading descriptions or representations of fact that are likely to cause consumer confusion as to the origin of [their] services,” including by “deceiving a substantial segment of its audience” into believing that they developed the Sculpt Society Method “independently of the TA Method” and that they have “no affiliation with or training from TA,” among other things. Such statements are “material,” per TA, as they are “likely to influence the purchasing decision of a choreography-based fitness consumer who is deciding between competing services.”
Setting out a breach of contract claim against Roup in her personal capacity, TA alleges that the trainer “breached, and continues to breach, the agreement [she signed in 2011] by using and disclosing to third-parties the confidential information after the termination of her employment at TA.” TA also sets out a claim of unfair and/or fraudulent business acts and business practices under California state law against both defendants.
With the foregoing in mind, Tracy Anderson contends that it has been “directly and proximately injured,” including by the defendants’ “unfair and fraudulent business acts and practices,” which have caused the company to suffer injury to its business, including a “lessening of the goodwill associated with [TA] and its services,” as well as “a diversion of sales and customers … to the defendants’ [business].” In addition to monetary damages, TA is seeking injunctive relief to bar the defendants from “advertising, promoting, or publishing false and/or misleading descriptions or representations of fact related to the origin and development of the Sculpt Society Method,” using the allegedly misappropriated confidential information they gained from TA, and infringing TA’s copyrights.
COVID, Copyright & Competition
The lawsuit is an interesting one for a few reasons, not least of which being the elements of competition and the viability of Anderson’s copyright claims. From a competition perspective, the lawsuit follows from the stunning rise in popularity of live-streamed and on-demand fitness programming, including subscription app-based services, thanks to gym restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to World Economic Forum data, between Q1 and Q2 2020, alone, health and fitness app downloads grew by 46 percent worldwide. Since then, 74 percent of Americans revealed that they used at least one fitness app during quarantine, with some 60 percent of them saying that they “enjoyed their home workouts so much that they now plan on canceling their gym membership for good.” These sentiments (and the enduring use of at-home workouts apps post-pandemic) have led to increased competition among players in this space.
The suit also comes as the scope of copyright protections for choreography has been a topic for courts and the Copyright Office, alike. (In more than one instance, the matters have been prompted by allegations of infringement of dances on social media site TikTok.) “The Copyright Office defines choreography as ‘the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent and expressive whole,” according to Manatt’s Jeffrey Edelstein. “Since choreography is a subset of dance, the Copyright Office will register a choreographic work if it contains a sufficient amount of choreographic authorship.”
While the bar for originality for copyright protection is notoriously low, that does not mean that all choreography has been given a green-light as enjoying such protections. In a closely-watched matter in 2019, for example, the U.S. Copyright Office refused to register the famed “Carlton” dance that Alfonso Ribeiro, better known as Carlton Banks from the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, created and debuted during a 1991 episode of the show. In its February 2019 decision denying Ribeiro’s application for registration of the choreography behind the dance, the Copyright Office stated that the dance was not registrable as a choreographic work because it “is a simple dance routine.” Before that, in a more exercise-centric matter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held in 2015 that ruled a sequence of 26 yoga poses was not entitled to copyright protection.
Such outcomes do not necessarily mean that Anderson is out of luck on the copyright front. “Legislative history indicates that ‘choreography’ does not include ‘social dance steps and simple routines,'” as the Copyright Office noted in a choreography-centric circular, but there could be a chance that Anderson’s routines fall outside of that realm and contain “at least a minimum amount of original choreographic authorship,” which for copyright purposes must be a “composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive [compositional] whole.”
At the same time, however, it is worth noting, as the Copyright Office does in the same circular, that while “a series of dance movements or patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive compositional whole” are an example of common elements of protectable choreography, compilations that consist of “a series of aerobic exercises” or a “complicated routine consisting of classical ballet positions or other types of dance movements intended for use in a fitness class” are “not copyrightable as choreography.”
A rep for Sculpt Society was not immediately available for comment.
The case is Tracy Anderson Mind and Body, LLC, et al. v. Megan Roup, et al., 2:22-cv-04735 (C.D. Cal.)