Today, choreography still feels a bit like the Wild West of copyright. Of the more than 500,000 applications the office receives for millions of works registered each year, says Kasunic, the number for choreographic works is typically less than 20; the office’s electronic system doesn’t even have a separate label for them, still lumping them in with dramatic works.
Several things could account for that. The world of professional dance is a small one built largely on reputation — so, historically, choreographers haven’t been tempted to outright copy each other’s work, resulting in few occasions (until recently, at least) when the idea of infringement litigation even seemed necessary. Providing the requisite material for an ironclad copyright application can also be costly (one Labanotation score can run just under $5,000). Still, plenty of choreographers have no idea that they can register their work in the first place. “It’s like the choreography world is just warming up to this stuff,” says Hecht. “As crazy as it sounds, the  Copyright Act laid out this protection, but it’s like no one looked at it.”
Knight was aware of copyright for choreography — he saw it mentioned with the credits in ballet programs and Broadway playbills. But within the commercial sphere, he says, “You only know what you see. And if it hasn’t been done, how can you dream of it?” One of the people most stunned by Knight and his team’s success registering “Single Ladies” was, in fact, his mentor and co-creator, Frank Gatson Jr., an industry veteran who danced in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video. “I was like, ‘Really? They did it?’ ” recalls Gatson, 62. “What JaQuel and I do, it’s commercial art. That’s why intellectual property is a big deal.”
For Knight, getting the “Single Ladies” job meant first failing to get another. Gatson was auditioning dancers for Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child), and Knight — who, in person, has the assured bearing of a performer but a compact build — was considered too short. Still, his freestyle at the audition impressed Gatson. “To this day, he says he came to make sure I noticed him, not to get the job,” recalls Gatson. “Today’s choreography, it all seems like, ‘Do a booty dance, act nasty, walk.’ But this young man had something very fresh and new.” He later hired Knight to choreograph a different Williams project and saw that he could organize a room full of “professional dancers, who are sometimes prima donnas” and clean up their movement without sacrificing its funk and soul. At that point in time, Gatson also worked closely with Beyoncé on both creative direction and choreography, and once the two began conceiving “Single Ladies,” he asked Knight to fly to New York to join the team.
Gatson had a choreographic reference in mind, which he had discussed with Beyoncé before Knight got involved: a Fosse routine called “Mexican Breakfast” that featured three women dancing in a line on a bare stage. He also wanted to incorporate J-setting, a movement style Knight knew in which dancers perform in a lead-follow format, similar to marching band majorettes. Beyond those initial points of inspiration, Knight had free rein to workshop any ideas he had, in the studio with Beyoncé. He’d teach her a bit each day, then sit down and talk about how they wanted the dance to make women feel. “ ‘Single Ladies’ for me is like a walk-through of my childhood,” says Knight. “Moments where I remind myself of my grandmothers, of talent shows with my cousins, marching band, everything I’ve done wrapped into one.”