YOGA: A COPYRIGHT MEDITATION

yogi_bearShiva_Bangalore_YOGI BERRA

A Bikram Yoga studio just opened not far from my office, and almost before I could ask, “What’s Bikram Yoga?” the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, in Bikram’s Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga, has told me what it is and one thing it is not—copyrightable as a “choreographic work.” Details after the jump.

Bikram’s Yoga is a sequence 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, always performed in the same order in a room heated to 105°F, which was developed by Birkram Choudhury in the 1970s.  A book Choudhury wrote describing his system, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, was registered for copyright in 1979.

A few instructors trained in Bikram’s sequence formed Evolation Yoga and opened their own competing yoga studios, and litigation ensued. Evolation moved for summary judgment on Bikram’s claims that they infringed the copyright on the book by teaching and using the sequence.

The court granted the motion.  First, the court invoked the rule that copyright only covers expression, not facts.  The court stated that “the Sequence is a collection of facts and ideas.  There is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises, and the compilation of exercises itself.  The former is copyrightable, the latter is not.”  I don’t quite follow that line of thought and I am not sure the fact/expression dichotomy is really what is in play here.  If Picasso wrote a book about his Demoiselles D’Avignon, with vivid textual descriptions and perhaps a reproduction , that would hardly seem to reduce his underlying masterpiece to a collection of facts and ideas ineligible for copyright.

The court’s alternative ground for decision seems to get closer to the heart of the matter.  Unlike Demoiselles D’Avignon in my example, the court held that the underlying sequence of yoga poses (the only thing Evolation was actually copying) was not itself copyrightable matter.  The problem was not the poses were unoriginal (they were, but the court assumed that the sequence—how the poses were arranged and ordered—had the requisite originality for copyright), but rather that a sequence of yoga poses did not fit into any of the eight categories of “works of authorship” listed in Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act.  Bikram argued that it qualified as a “choreographic work,” but the court ruled that neither an individual yoga pose nor a sequence of poses rose to the level of a choreographic work, following a recent policy statement from the Copyright Office which stated that a choreographic work for copyright purposes was “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive whole.”

In addition, the court ruled that Bikram’s sequence was excluded from copyright protection by Section 102(b) of the Act, which provides that in “no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”  Essentially, this provision preserves the distinction between copyrightable and patentable subject matter.  Bikram claimed that his sequence of poses “helps to prevent, cure, and alleviate diseases,” a claim to functional or utilitarian value that would seem to bring his sequence into the realm of patentable processes.  (As a practical matter, Bikram’s time for obtaining a patent has long since passed, and any patent he might have obtained in a timely manner back in the 70s would have expired years ago.)

Evolation is far from home free.  Although the copyright infringement claim has been dismissed, claims for trademark infringement, unfair competition, and breach of contract remain to be tried.

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