Yoga poses are not copyrightable, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in rejecting Bikram Choudhury’s attempt to copyright the 26 poses that make up the “Bikram Sequence” of yoga performed in a heated room, because it is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. In so ruling, the federal appellate panel declined to twist the law to fit Choudhury’s position.

The dispute arose after a pair of former Choudhury students opened their own yoga studio and led clients through 26 poses just like those in the Bikram sequence in a room heated to 105 degrees. Choudhury sued, alleging a violation of the copyright he was issued for his 1979 book,Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class.

In codifying the “idea/expression dichotomy,” Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act 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.” Accordingly, the protection for his 1979 book did not extend to the sequence itself.

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

A book describing how to perform a complicated surgery does not give the holder the exclusive right to perform the surgery, the court said. “Like the series of movements a surgeon makes, the Sequence is, as Choudhury tells readers, a method designed to ‘cure, heal, or at least alleviate’ physical injuries and illness,” and monopoly protection for such a method can only be secured—if at all—by a patent.

Section 102(b) similarly precluded copyright protection for the sequence as a compilation or choreographic work. Both of those categories—found in Sections 103 and 102(a)(4), respectively—complement Section 102(b), so that while a compilation or choreographic work “may be eligible for copyright protection, it must nevertheless satisfy the requirements of Section 102,” the panel wrote.

“[A]s Congress has responded to new technologies and evolving understandings of creative expression, the idea/expression dichotomy has remained firmly in place,” the court said. “This dichotomy, as this case illustrates, polices the uncertain boundaries of copyrightable subject matter.”

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

Why it matters: The decision provides an important reminder about the boundaries of copyright protection, particularly the idea/expression dichotomy. “Although there is no cause to dispute the many health, fitness, spiritual and aesthetic benefits of yoga, and Bikram yoga in particular, they do not bring the Sequence into the realm of copyright protection,” the court said. “Choudhury thus attempts to secure copyright protection for a healing art: a system designed to yield physical benefits and a sense of well-being. Simply put, this attempt is precluded by copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy, codified by Section 102(b).”