'Lock Your Knees': Yoga Sequences Not Copyrightable

'Lock Your Knees': Yoga Sequences Not Copyrightable

December was a busy month for yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. On December 14, 2012, the United States District Court of the Central District of California granted a partial Summary Judgment in favour of Evolation Yoga in the case of Bikram's Yoga College of India v Evolation. The judgment came just weeks after a joint press release, filed on December 3, 2012 by Bikram Choudhury, Bikram’s Yoga College of India LLP and Yoga to the People Inc (YTTP) announcing that the lawsuit they had launched against one another in a Los Angeles Federal District Court over a year ago had finally been settled.

In the lawsuit initially filed by Mr. Choudhury, it was alleged that the sequence of the asana poses and accompanying instructions as offered by YTTP to its students was infringing his intellectual property.

Bikram yoga is a sequence of 26 asana poses that were “selected and developed” by Mr. Choudhury.  The sequence of poses is taught in rooms heated to a recommended temperature of 105F or 40.55C with a humidity level of 40%. Mr. Choudhury has given numerous interviews, published books and continues to give seminars across the globe. He opened his first studio in 1973 and now franchises internationally.

Intuitively, one would think that yoga poses, like any other therapeutic exercise, should not be subject to intellectual property law, especially since Mr. Choudhury himself was trained by Bishnu Gosh, "India's most-renowned physical culturist at that time." However, in 2003, Mr. Choudhury announced that “his asana sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises” had been registered for copyright protection.

In a press release concerning the successful assertion of his intellectual property rights stemming from a 2003 lawsuit settlement, Bikram’s Yoga College of India website stated:

The simple facts are these:

• No one may teach Bikram Yoga classes unless he/she is a certified and licensed Bikram Yoga teacher.
• No one may teach or certify others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury.
• No one may offer obvious, thinly disguised copies of Bikram Yoga and represent to the public that it is "their" yoga.

Yoga students should be particularly cautious of those persons who claim to offer teacher training and/or teacher "certification" in Bikram Yoga, or represent or suggest that their yoga teacher training program "is just as good as Bikram Yoga." Nobody may teach others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury himself.

This lawsuit is proof that the legal system will vindicate Bikram against those persons who exploit and adulterate Bikram Yoga for their own purposes. These persons are not yoga gurus. These persons are not interested in "sharing" yoga with everyone, as they may self-servingly claim. These persons are only interested in personally profiting from teaching Bikram Yoga. It is for the protection of Bikram Yoga, Bikram Yoga practitioners everywhere and the true spirit of yoga that these imposters must and will be stopped.

In July 2011, Bikram’s Yoga College of India issued a press release concerning a complaint they had filed against Mark Drost and Zefea Samson (both certified Bikram yoga teachers) who had been offering the sequence at their yoga studio Evolation. The complaint alleged eight causes of action including copyright infringement for the Bikram yoga sequence.

On December 14, 2012, the United States District Court of the Central District of California granted a partial Summary Judgment in favor of the Defendants. (Summary Judgment, 8 ) Specifically, the Court noted that although Mr. Choudhury had copyrighted various literary and audiovisual works depicting the yoga sequence, he was only entitled to the expression of the works and not the underlying ideas. (Summary Judgment, 4) Further, the Court confirmed that, “…Choudhury’s compilation of exercises and yoga poses (and not the book or videos depicting the compilation) – is merely a procedure or system of exercises” and that regardless of the categories eligible for copyright protection based on section 102(a) of the US Copyright Act, that copyright protection would not extend to ideas, procedures or systems based on section 102(b) of the Act. (Summary Judgment, 5).

Rewinding to September 2011, YTTP was served a complaint by Bikram’s Yoga College of India and Bikram Choudhury for allegations including copyright and trade-mark infringement, false designation of origin, dilution, unfair competition and unfair business practices. (Complaint, para 4) Gregory Gumucio, owner of YTTP and former student of Mr. Choudhury (certified teacher) had been offering classes using the Bikram sequence of poses in their heated New York studios. YTTP was charging $8 per class as opposed to the $25 dollars typically charged by Bikram Yoga NYC. The competition in pricing apparently drove a New York Bikram Yoga studio out of business, which is what prompted Mr. Choudhury to react.

Interestingly, in the midst of the legal battle, on June 22, 2012, Robert Kasunic, Deputy General Counsel of the US Copyright Office issued a statement of policy to clarify its position regarding the legitimacy of copyright claims for compilations, particularly the “arrangement of exercises or of other uncopyrightable matter.” (Office, 77 FR 37605) Basing their decision on the interpretation in Feist Publications Inc v Rural Tel Serv Co 499 US 340 (US 1991), the Office held that not all “organization of preexisting material may be copyrightable”, (Office, 77 FR 37605) thereby concluding that in order for the compilation to be registrable, it must “fall within one or more categories of authorship listed in section 102”. (Office, 77 FR 37606)

In clarifying their position, the Copyright Office maintained that any previous registrations were made in error and that going forward, such registrations would be refused. (Office, 77 FR 37607-08)

Similarly in Canada, exercise movements are not categorized as copyright protectable subject matter. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office’s (CIPO) webpage assisting individuals for registration of a copyright work states that "[a] compilation is a work resulting from the selection or arrangement of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works or parts thereof, or a work resulting from the selection or arrangement of data." In essence, while the original selection or arrangement of eligible subject matter or data would normally qualify for copyright protection as a compilation, it would not qualify if the underlying work did not fit into these categories.

This is the accepted view in Intellectual Property Law: Copyrights, Patents and Trade-Marks, where Professor David Vaver states that "[c]ategories of work (other than data) that would not themselves qualify for copyright are excluded." (Vaver, 93)

Despite the clarification made by US Copyright Office, YTTP settled with Bikram and will no longer continue to offer the Bikram style classes in 2013. Interestingly, in an open letter to his students after the settlement, Gregory Gumacio stated:

I find the idea of anyone claiming ownership of yoga asanas, or sequences, counterintuitive to the essence of yoga. I believe that this sacred and traditional knowledge is a gift to all mankind, and thus beyond claims of ownership and copyright.

Indeed, incorporating Traditional Knowledge into CIPO's practice has been made an important mandate. Although the statement of policy from the US Copyright Office did not make reference to Traditional Knowledge, the end result of their position is that yoga teachers may engage in teaching variations of the Bikram sequence while yogis benefit from competition and affordable prices. Having said this, the multi-million dollar Bikram Empire is one that is well known, as are his franchising, licensing and certification practices. As a result, despite their questionable legal tactics, Bikram yoga will undoubtedly retain its mass following.

Courtney Doagoo is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.