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Copyright Case Puts Freeze on Bikram Hot Yoga

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 12, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury has to chill now, legally speaking. He is not entitled to copyright protection for his 26-position exercise sequence done in hundred-degree heat.

Bikram, a name now associated with hot yoga, has been fighting this legal battle since 2011. Two former students opened a studio in New York teaching the poses they learned from the master in 2009. The guru filed suit two years later, claiming he owned "graceful flow" yoga. He was wrong.

A Collection of Facts and Ideas

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Choudhury, confirming a lower court's opinion that the exercise sequence could not be copyrighted. The federal judges pointed out that there was no copyright protection for a collection of facts and ideas.

"[A]t bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea -- the words and pictures used to describe the Sequence -- and not the idea of the Sequence itself," the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Yoga in the USA

Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote the court's opinion, which illuminates the history of yoga in the United States and puts Bikram in context. "Some of yoga's first American adherents included nineteenth-century transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were fascinated by yoga's approach to achieving enlightenment."

By the 1960's, Americans had adopted yoga as a non-spiritual form of physical exercise, Wardlaw wrote. "In 1971, Bikram Choudhury, the "self-proclaimed 'Yogi to the stars,'" arrived in Beverly Hills, California. He soon became a central figure in the growing popularity of yoga in the United States."

Choudhury opened studios, published books containing his sequence, and started a teacher training program in the decades that followed. The precise question before the court was whether the copyright protection that applied to his publication also applied to the exercise sequence itself.

The Idea/Expression Dichotomy

The answer was no. Movements cannot be copyrighted. If they could be, Wardlow asked, what would stop people from copyrighting lawn mowing and tooth brushing?

The opinion turns on the distinction between an idea and the expression of an idea in copyright law. An idea cannot be copyrighted but its expression may be.

The court relied on an earlier case about a book-keeping system described in a book. The book -- an expression of an idea -- was eligible for copyright protection. But the book-keeping system, or the idea described in the publication, was not.

Applying that to Choudhury's sequences, his book is eligible for copyright protection. But the idea described by the book, the exercise sequence, is not.

Possible Patent Protection?

The opinion contains an interesting suggestion that Choudhury may yet take up. Wardlaw muses that his sequence of poses might qualify for patent protection as a method for improving health.

For now, however, feel free to turn up the heat and stretch. It's an idea and Bikram cannot keep it all to himself.

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