A series of yoga poses and breathing exercises cannot be copyrighted, a federal court judge in California recently ruled.

In 1971, Bikram Choudhury developed a series of 26 yoga poses and 2 breathing exercises that are performed in the same order for exactly 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Choudhury claimed his sequence helps avoid, correct, cure, heal, and alleviate the symptoms of a variety of diseases and health issues.

Choudhury offers classes and training to others to teach his system; he also wrote books describing and depicting his yoga sequence.

But when two instructors opened a number of yoga studios offering the same sequence in the same manner without his permission, Choudhury sued. He alleged trademark and copyright infringement as well as unfair competition and breach of contract.

Finding that the series of poses is “a system or procedure,” the court granted partial summary judgment for the defendants, ruling that Choudhury’s sequence is not copyrightable. “Copyrights cover an author’s creative expression of facts and ideas – the facts and ideas themselves are not protected,” U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright, II, wrote.

Only certain categories of works may be copyrighted, and Choudhury’s sequence did not fall into any of the protected categories, such as, literary works; musical works; dramatic works; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works.

Choudhury contended that his series could be a pantomime or choreographic work because it consists of “significant gestures without speech.” But the court said that a “mere compilation of physical movements does not rise to the level of choreographic authorship unless it contains sufficient attributes of a work of choreography.”

Choudhury’s poses “hardly seem to fall within the definition of a pantomime or choreographic work because of the simplicity of the sequence and the fact that it is not a dramatic performance,” Judge Wright concluded.

Compilations of exercises also are not copyrightable, he added. “It is not enough that the collection was selected, coordinated, and arranged in such a way that makes the work as a whole an original work of authorship,” the court said. “The Copyright Office made clear that ‘exercise is not a category of authorship in section 102 and thus a compilation of exercises would not be copyrightable subject matter.’ Thus, even if the manner in which Choudhury arranged the sequence is unique, the sequence would not be a copyrightable subject matter because individual yoga poses are not copyrightable subject matter.”

To read the complaint in Bikram’s Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga, click here.

Why it matters: Although Judge Wright granted partial summary judgment, he reserved for a later date the issue of whether the defendants may be infringing Choudhury’s copyright by orally reciting the words contained within his copyrighted book to their yoga students. “For instance, if a novel is read out loud to a public audience (assuming that the portions read are original), this might be considered copyright infringement,” he wrote.