The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded recently that the twenty-six (26) moves of Bikram Yoga cannot be copyrighted. Essentially, the Court ruled that yoga possess and its related breathing routines are not entitled to copyright protection because copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves.
Mr. Choudhury is an Indian yoga teacher and founder of Bikram Yoga, a form of hot yoga performed in a series of twenty six (26) “hatha” yoga postures done in a hot environment of 40 °C or 105 °F. Specifically, Mr. Choudhury created these posture series, which he claimed to restore his health. The precise temperature of 105 °F in which Bikram yoga is practiced, according to Mr. Choudhury, is meant to mimic the climate of certain geographical locations within India.
In 2003, Mr. Choudhury successfully registered a copyright under 17 U.S.C. Section 410 for Bikram yoga sequence of twenty-six postures and related breathing exercises. He then proceeded to sue everything that moved and breathed that sequence, or anything that was derivative of it.
Accordingly, in 2011, yoga guru Bikram Choudhury filed a multi million-dollar lawsuit against several yoga studios claiming copyright infringement of his pose styles and teaching scripts. Mr. Choudhury had the right to file this suit because he actually held the 2003 copyright. The complaint filed against Evolation Yoga LLC and other yoga studios stated:
"The very essence of Bikram Yoga is that its postures are performed in exactly the same sequence, with exactly the same instructions and commands, in a room heated to 105° Fahrenheit, in every class,”
“The intended benefits from Bikram Yoga can only be derived if the yoga class is performed precisely as Bikram developed it.
First the case was decided by the U.S. District Court in 2012. In this suit, the 2003 copyright successfully granted to Mr. Choudhury by the Copyright Office was challenged. As such, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the Defendant claiming that even if the manner in which Choudhury arranged the sequence is unique, the sequence would not be copyrightable subject matter because individual yoga poses are not copyrightable subject matter.
Thereafter, Mr. Choudhury appealed to the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The Ninth Circuit Judge Wardlaw asserted that the Plaintiff, Mr. Choudhury was stretching copyright protection too far. In her decision she wrote:
"This question implicates a fundamental principle underlying constitutional and statutory copyright protecton - the idea/expression dichotomy. Because copyright protected is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves, the Bikram Yoga Sequence is not a proper subject of copyright protection."
Furthermore, the Court refuted the choreography argument (which is copyrightable), by stating that:
“Our day-to-day lives consist of many routinized physical movements, from brushing one’s teeth to pushing a lawnmower to shaking a Polaroid picture, that could be…characterized as forms of dance. Without a proper understanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, one might obtain monopoly rights over these functional physical sequences by describing them in a tangible medium of expression and labeling them choreographic works.”
In addition, the Court asserted that Bikran Yoga is not an expression of an idea, but rather its an idea in itself. So, even if Mr. Choudhury’s book “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” can be copyright protected, the actual twenty-six (26) poses are not copyrightable.
After this decision, yoga instructors are free to use yoga possesses and its related breathing exercises without any infringement constraints.