Court Says Yoga Poses Aren’t Protected by Copyright Law

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Yoga PoseThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a sequence of poses claimed by “hot yoga” guru Bikram Choudhury aren’t protectable under US copyright law.

Choudhoury and his company, Bikram’s Yoga College of India, had sued Evolation Yoga for copyright infringement for teaching a “hot yoga” class. Evolation was founded by a former Choudhury student.

The court noted that the question presented to it implicated

a fundamental principle underlying constitutional and statutory copyright protection—the idea/expression dichotomy.

The History of Yoga in America

The court noted that the practice and philosophy of yoga goes back thousands of years. In the US, its practice dates to at least the 19th century, when it was practiced by transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Choudhury arrived in Beverly Hills in 1971 and soon became a well-known yoga instructor, counting movie and sports stars among his students.

His sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises was described in his 1979 book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. He registered the copyright for the book. In 2002, he also registered the copyright for the “compilation of exercises” contained in the book.

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Bikram Yoga

As reported by The Washington Post, Bikram Yoga is “sweaty, relentless and famously regimented. It’s conducted in rooms so hot it would make even someone accustomed to swampy D.C. summers swoon.”

Classes last 90 minutes and are conducted in a carpeted room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The conditions are meant to simulate the Indian climate.

Starting in 2002, Choudhury began sending cease-and-desist letters to studios offering “Bikram”-style yoga classes, claiming the rights to both his name and the sequence of poses.

Several smaller studios settled. Others formed a group called Open Source Yoga Unity to fight Choudhury’s copyright claims.

In the wake of the disputes, the US Copyright Office issued a new policy making clear that an individual yoga pose couldn’t be protected by copyright law – any more than a choreographer could protect a new-and-improved pirouette.

Idea versus Expression

US copyright law excludes protection for

any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

(Emphasis added.)

Specific expressions of ideas are protectable under copyright law, but the ideas themselves are not.

This is because

copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.

(Ideas that qualify as “inventions” under patent law can be protected by patent rights.)

The court held that:

Though Choudhury emphasizes the aesthetic attributes of the Sequence’s “graceful flow,” at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea—the words and pictures used to describe the Sequence—and not the idea of the Sequence itself. Because the Sequence is an unprotectible idea, it is also ineligible for copyright protection as a “compilation” or “choreographic work.”

The case is Bikram’s Yoga College of India LP et al. v. Evolation Yoga.

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