Over the past decade, the Copyright Office has issued hundreds of yoga-related copyrights for books, videos, and the like —protecting intellectual property for a fitness/spiritual lifestyle that has bent itself into a $27 billion industry. Although yogis have several options to twist themselves into shape, one style in particular has stood off the mat—Bikram yoga.
A type of hatha yoga characterized by a set series of postures and breathing exercises, Bikram yoga is performed in a room heated to a high temperature (roughly 105 degrees Fahrenheit). All Bikram classes run for 90 minutes and consist of the same series of 26 postures (the "Sequence"), including two Pranayama breathing exercises. Popularized by esteemed guru Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, Bikram yoga is now taught by instructors all over the United States.
The popularity of Bikram yoga appears to have shaken the original founder's zen. Indeed, Mr. Choudhury has sued several studios, like NYC's Yoga to the People, for copyright infringement, reaching settlements that have prevented studios from using the Bikram name or copying the Bikram Sequence. Faced with lawsuits, such studios must either sweat it out in court or otherwise capitulate and lie down in savasana (or corpse pose).
One such case occurred in 2011, when Choudhury and Bikram's Yoga College of India sued Evolation Yoga for copyright infringement and related claims (e.g., trademark infringement and violations of teacher-certification agreements). Codefendants (also husband and wife) Mark Drost and Zefea Samson are former trainees of Bikram's course of study and became authorized to teach Bikram's Basic Yoga System. The two eventually formed Evolation Yoga, which uses the same Sequence, prompting a cease-and-desist letter demanding the pair stop teaching Bikram yoga. The plaintiffs argued that the Bikram yoga Sequence should be protected as a compilation and as choreography (and are within the ambit of Choudhury's various copyrights for his yoga-related books depicting the Sequence).
In December 2012, a California court dismissed Choudhury's copyright claims, leaving related trademark and breach of contract claims for a future session. The court remained inflexible to the notion that the Sequence of Bikram yoga poses could be protected by copyright law, causing studios everywhere to relax their muscles. (Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, 2012 WL 6548505 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 14, 2012)). The court held that although books or photographs that depict a compilation of exercises may be copyrightable, the compilation authorship would not extend to the selection of the exercises themselves depicted in the photographs: "There is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises and the compilation of exercises itself. The former is copyrightable, the latter is not." Moreover, the court found that, as a functional system that promotes physical and mental benefits, yoga postures cannot be registered for copyright. In dismissing Choudhury's claim, the opinion meditates on a U.S. Copyright Office statement of policy declaring that a compilation of exercise or yoga moves does not fall under one of the Copyright Act's eight categories of authorship. Consequently, and according to the policy statement, yoga poses are ineligible for copyright protections. (See 77 Fed. Reg. 37605 (June 22, 2012).)
Appealing to a higher power (that is, the Ninth Circuit), Choudhury's lawyers are trying to get the case sent back to the yoga mat. Last month at oral argument, Choudhury's counsel argued that, while individual poses are not copyrightable, the guru is trying to protect his "creative vision" in his specific 26-pose Sequence. Balancing yoga positions with ballet poses, Choudhury argued that all such forms of physical movement should be eligible as a protectable compilation or expressive choreographic work, or, at the very least, protectable against verbatim copying. The appellants also argued that the Copyright Office's policy statement should not be entitled to any deference by the court.
Remaining firm in tadasana (or mountain pose), the defendants reasserted and stretched the lower court's ruling that copyright protection extends only to books containing Choudhury's instructions, not to the routine itself—much like a cookbook author's inability to protect the actual cooking of a recipe. Bikram's arguments also have drawn bad vibes from Yoga Alliance, an international trade association, which filed an amicus brief in support of defendant, finding that Bikram's position "would be devastating to the yoga community."
Until the court of appeals releases its decision, Bikram yogis across the country will continue to warrior their way through 105-degree heat. (Don't try this at Om.)