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Bikram Can't Copyright Yoga Poses or Breathing, 9th Rules

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 09, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied well worn copyright principals and ruled that yoga poses and breathing exercises are not entitled to copyright protection. More specifically, the court found that breathing and poses don't even fall into the realm of things that are copyrightable.

The issues in this case revolve around what practitioners have called the "Idea/Expression Dichotomy" -- that is, an idea as opposed to the expression or manifestation of that idea. Copyright protection, the 9th Circuit affirmed, extends only to the expressions of ideas and not to "processes."

Setting the Stage: Yogi to the Stars

Bikram Choudhury arrived in Beverly Hills, California and quickly established himself as the Yogi to the stars. Based on his extensive personal study of traditional yoga, he developed a sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises arranged in a particular order -- the "Sequence."

The Sequence was practiced over 90 minutes to voiced instructions in 105 Fahrenheit temperatures to simulate the sweltering Indian Climate. The Sequence quickly became a Hollywood mainstay and Choudhury published and registered a book in 1979 that detailed the Sequence.

Choudhury trained two students, Drost and Samson, who later went on to found Evolation Yoga which offered "hot yoga" which was essentially the same process that Choudhury offered. Choudhury sued for copyright infringement and the lower court ruled that the Sequence was a "collection of facts and ideas" not entitled to copyright protection.

Ideas vs. Expression

In reviewing the case, the 9th Circuit determined very quickly that the Sequence fell squarely outside the set of things covered by copyright. Ideas are the proper subject of copyright; not the expression of those ideas. The court reiterated the primary thrust of Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act: ideas essentially become part of the public's free use as soon as they are published.

Baker v Selden: the Seminal Health Methodology Case

The court relied almost exclusively on Baker v. Selden, an 1879 case that put the Idea/Expression dichotomy in practice. In the language of Selden, "If the discoverer writes and publishes a book on the subject, he gains no exclusive right to the manufacture and sale of the medicine; he gives it to the public."

In keeping with other courts ruling on similar cases, the 9th Circuit held that a copyright held for a work describing a process does not next extend to the process itself -- and Choudhury's sequence was squarely that. Since Choudhury sought to copyright the Sequence based on the copyright of his book, the Court said, the best path for IP protection would come, if at all, from patent.

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