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Copyright Not Flexible Enough to Protect Bikram Yoga

The Ninth Circuit is the federal appellate court for the region that includes California. That means that when it decides a case, that controls the federal law on the West Coast unless and until the United States Supreme Court steps in and decides the law. That means that when a court decision comes out about yoga, it will have some impact. After all, according to Forbes in 2013, half of the top ten cities of people doing yoga are in that region. 

Last week, the Ninth Circuit decided that the sequence of poses that make up Bikram yoga is not copyrightable. Bikram yoga is a set series of 26 poses that are bookended by 2 breathing exercises. The sequence occurs in a 90 minute class in a room that is at 105ºF. Every class is supposed to have the same sequence for the same allotted time. This sequence and requirements were put into place by Bikram Choudhury, which he published and registered copyright in a book in 1979. In 1994, he started a teacher training course and has written several books since. In 2002, he registered a copyright in the sequence itself. After taking the teacher training, the defendants started to teach the sequence in a heated room. Choudhury and his company sued in 2011. The District Court found that there is no copyright available in the sequence, but there was in the related books. The Ninth Circuit agreed.

Copyright protects the expression of an idea but not the idea itself. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act of 1976 expressly 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.” In other words, you can write about an idea or process and the writing is copyrighted, but the idea or process itself is not protected by copyright. “[F]or example, the copyright for a book describing a complicated surgery does not give the [copyright] holder the exclusive right to perform the surgery.” It just gives the writer of the book the rights to control the description given in the book. After all, there is patent law to protect the processes and procedures.

The U.S. Supreme Court had held previously that a book’s description of a book-keeping system is protected, but the system of book-keeping itself is not. However, choreography is protected. So is a yoga sequence more like book-keeping and surgery or choreography?

Choudhury describes the sequence as a system” and a method” designed to systematically work the body’s muscles, organs, ligaments, tendons to allow optimum health and maximum function. He continuously claims health benefits due to this strict sequence and reinforces it in each class. Instructions given during the class talk about how the breathing exercises are used to expand the lungs, the poses are good for certain organs, and the order of poses is important to get maximum benefit. 

The Ninth Circuit found that means Choudhury was attempting to secure copyright protection for a healing art” and is thus not allowed to protect the sequence in of itself. The healing methodology” of Bikram yoga is more like the surgery, and, thus, is not eligible for copyright protection. If he wanted to protect the process, that protection is more properly sought through the patent process.” Because the sequence was chosen for functional purposes, it is also not choreography. The poses where chosen and sequenced in such a way to maximize health, and as such, serve basic functional purposes” not artistic. 

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it will hurt Choudhury’s ability to prevent others from having hot yoga classes in which the sequence is performed. He has made quite a bit of money from the licensing of his yoga. Now, it will only matter if yoga studios want to use the Bikram trademark. Before, Choudhury claimed that even if they just used the sequence, he was owed licensing fees. That is now gone. Second, it shows that each intellectual property protection has its boundaries. Patent and copyright are not interchangeable, and each has its purpose and place. Third, creators need to be careful to know which sandbox they are playing in and act (and register) accordingly.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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