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'Carlton Dance' suit against 'Fortnite' may have two left feet, experts say

"Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" star Alfonso Ribeiro's lawsuit against the makers of the smash video game Fortnite faces tough hurdles, experts say

Carlton may have trouble dancing away with money from his lawsuit against the owner of "Fortnite."

Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton Banks on the beloved 90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” filed suit earlier this week against Epic Games, the makers of "Fortnite," charging they stole his dance moves from the show for their wildly popular video game.

And he's not the only one. Ribeiro's suit is one of three filed against Epic over "stolen" dance moves, alleging that the company hasn't credited or compensated them for the bits. Rapper 2 Milly is suing the game for using his "Milly Rock" dance, as is the kid who invented "The Floss."

"Fortnite" is a free game, but players can buy "emotes" that allow their characters to do certain celebratory dances. One of those dances is called "Fresh," and appears identical to the "Carlton Dance" that Ribeiro first broke out into during a 1991 episode of "Fresh Prince" — and many times since.

But Ribeiro has some obstacles to jump over, copyright experts told NBC News — including whether he has a legal claim to “the Carlton” himself — and experts were skeptical any of the lawsuits could succeed.

"He created and performed that dance while acting on a television show he was a performer on, so it was likely 'work for hire'" that belongs to the show's producers," said copyright lawyer Scott Alan Burroughs.

"If you're an elf working at the North Pole making toys for Santa and while doing so you come up with a great new toy design, the copyright belongs to Santa Claus, not you."

The suit charges "Fortnite" maker Epic with copyright infringement and misappropriating Ribeiro's likeness by stealing his moves.

Emotes in video games aren't a particularly recent phenomenon, with Riberio's moves finding their way into a variety of games.

The lawsuits, however, are a more recent development — and one that highlights how the growing video game industry is coming under greater scrutiny as its profits grow.

Dance routines can be copyrighted, but not single moves or common routines. The U.S. Copyright Office issued a guidance last year saying it “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,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Another hurdle is that while the dance has become identified with Ribeiro, he's said in interviews that he "stole" the goofy moves from Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video and Eddie Murphy's "White Man Dance" routine from his movie "Raw."

He's said that Springsteen's dance partner at the end of the 1984 video, future "Friends" star Courteney Cox, is the dance's "mom and Eddie Murphy's the dad."

Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said Ribeiro might be able to make it past that issue because he modified the dance and "it's not known as the Courteney Cox - it's known as the Carlton."

Theoretically, Cox and Murphy could make their own claim against Ribeiro, Perzanowski said. "Presumably the predecessors would have the ability to say 'that’s our dance and you copied it.' It's not likely, but it's possible," he said.

Burroughs said Ribeiro probably doesn't have to worry about any legal problems from Cox or Murphy, because "you can be inspired by anything," and at the end of the day, the Carlton "is a bit more complex" than the other bits.

"An idea is not protected (by copyright law) but the expression of that idea is," Burroughs said.

Ribeiro's lawyer, David L. Hecht, told NBC News his client "created the dance by expressing his own interpretation of a combination of several ideas, resulting in a new, original, and copyrightable choreographic work."

"Twenty-seven years later, The Dance remains distinctive, immediately recognizable, and inextricably linked to Ribeiro’s identity, celebrity, and likeness," Ribeiro's suit says.

"Ribeiro continues to perform The Dance, even inserting it during his famous performance in 2014 as part of his victorious run on the hit television show 'Dancing with the Stars.' Ribeiro is constantly inundated with requests to perform The Dance; he has performed it on numerous occasions at the behest of both the public and celebrities."

The strongest claim in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Los Angeles, is that the game's makers "created the Fresh emote by capturing and digitally copying Ribeiro performing the dance."

Burroughs was still skeptical.

"This type of claim is generally made in connection with the use of someone’s actual picture or name on a product or in an advertisement," he said. "I am not confident that the statute would apply to a third-party avatar doing a signature dance."

Burroughs said the video game maker might be able to prevail in court, but should still think about doing right by Ribeiro and the others. The game has been hugely successful, raking in over $318 million in May alone, the suit says.

"The copyright act doesn’t reach every claim that’s valid on a moral ground," he said. "The company is making large amounts of money from original dances that were created by these individuals."

Burroughs said Ribeiro’s case appears stronger than the other two actions against Epic.

“Mr. Ribiero’s dance has multiple steps put together in a very creative way that would give him strong protection," he said. "The Milly dance has fewer elements to it."