Many yoga teachers and members of the yoga community breathed a sigh of relief last week, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California affirmed a previous ruling by a federal district court that Bikram Choudhury’s sequence of 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises is not entitled to copyright protection.
"Because copyright protection 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," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.
The Backstory on the Bikram Copyright Lawsuit
The legal saga began in 2011, when Mark Drost, co-founder of Evolation Yoga, received a complaint from Choudhury accusing him of copyright infringement among other allegations. Drost had spent six years as a senior member of the Bikram training staff, working closely with Choudhury, but he left in 2008 to start Evolation studios and lead teacher trainings, instructing students in the Primary Hot Series as originally popularized by Choudhury. Drost says he knew that copyright law was on his side, so he decided to fight back, winning a summary judgment in 2012. "We knew this was way bigger than us or Bikram," Drost tells Yoga Journal. (Choudhury and Bikram's Yoga College of India did not return requests for comment.)
When Choudhury appealed, yoga nonprofit Yoga Alliance stepped up to support Drost through its counsel Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, which provided copyright expertise and filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit arguing that a sequence of yoga poses is not protectable by copyright.
"Copyright law only protects original expression. It does not protect ideas or facts including systems, methods, and processes," says Cydney A. Tune, senior counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. "Bikram has referred to his sequence numerous times over the years as a system and as a method. Copyright law also does not protect something that is functional, and again we can point to Bikram's own words as he talks about all of the ways that doing his sequence of yoga poses enhances of the functioning of your body. He also argued that [the sequence] is choreography, which can be protected under copyright law. We argued that the sequence is not choreography and the court agreed, finding that the sequence is not choreography because the sequence is 'an idea, process, or system to which no copyright protection can extend.' Yoga is different from choreography—you are not doing this as creative expression. According to Bikram, you are are doing it to enhance your health and physical well-being."
In other words, a yoga pose or sequence is akin to an "idea" or a fact, and you cannot copyright an idea or a fact. You can certainly copyright the "expression" of an idea, which is why Choudhury’s 1979 book about his sequence, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, does have copyright protection. But Choudhury does not have a copyright on the sequence of poses itself, and therefore cannot stop others from teaching the sequence or any part of it.
What This Means for the Future of Yoga
"Anyone I know who teaches yoga does not think you should be able to copyright your own yoga poses," says Drost. "This was the main reason we fought. It goes against everything we teach in yoga. It's morally wrong. Yoga is for everyone. It's been in the public domain for thousands of years."
Now that the court has affirmed that Bikram’s yoga sequence is not copyrightable, and by extension that a yoga sequence in general is not copyrightable, yoga teachers can feel free to put together sequences without fear of infringing copyrights. And that is the real victory here.
"Bikram is the only person I’ve heard of in the history of yoga who [suggested], 'I’m going to teach you this and tell you that you can’t go teach it,'" says Drost. "He popularized this sequence and he should get credit for that. But the fundamental thing we teach in teacher trainings is that it's not about the teacher, it's about empowering students, sharing knowledge, and sharing experience. I think this decision helps people get back to the spirit of what yoga is."
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