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Yoga Poses - Are they subject to Copyright Protection?

Written by Thomas Mould on 09 November 2015

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Yoga- can a pose be protected by copyright?

 Bikram Yoga College of India v. Evolution Yoga, LLC

This case dealt with Bikram yoga; a style of yoga developed and popularized by Bikram Choudhury in the late 20th Century. Bikram yoga consists of a sequence of 26 different 'asanas' (poses) and two breathing exercises, conducted in a hot room through a series of instructions.

Mr. Choudhury has released two books, "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class" in 1979, and later, a 'compilation of exercises' which were registered with the US Copyright Office.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Choudhury introduced the "Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course", allowing for all would-be 'yogis' to learn his methods and to teach them at classes. In the early 2000s, Mark Frost and Zefea Samson participated in the course, and subsequently founded Evolution Yoga, where they taught, among other classes, "hot yoga", which was similar to Bikram yoga. Mr. Choudhury promptly took the pair to court, alleging the infringement of his copyright protected works in the aforementioned book in their yoga classes.

The issue in question is whether the poses, and the sequence of them, could be protected under US copyright. This includes whether the asansas and breathing exercises would be classed as mere ideas, or the expression of specific ideas, falling within or outside of copyright protection. Similar cases have arisen in the past, such as Palmer v Braun (denying copyright protection for meditation exercises), the Court of Appeals saw that what Mr. Choudhury sought to protect was the idea of yoga exercises, and not a tangible, proper form of expression falling within its remit of protection.

Mr Choudhury argument that the 'beauty' and 'grace' within the sequence should allow for its protection, the Court dismissed this, as "...beauty is not a basis for copyright protection. The performance of many ideas, systems, or processes may be beautiful... But the beauty of the process does not permit one who describes it to gain, through copyright, the monopolistic power to exclude all others from practicing it". Allowing for the protection of the sequence of poses and breathing exercises would monopolize the idea of it, preventing others from disseminating them or using them as they please. 

The second argument put forth was that the sequence was a protectable 'compilation' under 17 U.S.C. § 103(a) through the selection, coordination and arrangement of the particular poses in their respective sequence. This argument was rejected by the Court of Appeals.

Finally, the last argument was that the sequence is a protectable choreographic work under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(4). As above, the Court of Appeals rejected this, since the protection under section 102 still requires for the underlying work to be protectable; something the Court firmly denied earlier in the judgment. The addition of the new sub-section to section 102 allowed for the inclusion of choreographic works, but it still will not extend to mere ideas. In the end the Court of Appeals rejected all of the arguments, not allowing for the protection of yoga poses through copyright.

Even though Mr. Choudhury lost his case, it shows how flexible copyright law can be, especially in the US, and the importance of choice of relevant IP protection.

If you'd like to know more about this article please send an email to Thomas Mould quoting the article title and any questions you might have, alternatively call the office number on 02380 235 979 or send an enquiry through our contact form.

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