Dog-eat-Downward Dog: US Appeals Court Rules that Yogi Cannot Copyright Yoga Sequence

December 2nd, 2015 by

In a decision released early October, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Bikram Choudhury, the celebrity yogi who popularized an eponymous form of yoga in the United States, could not copyright a sequence of 26 yoga poses. The case, Bikram’s Yoga College v Evolation Yoga, started as a dispute between the guru and two of his students when the students took his course and then began their own instructional course based on Choudhury’s teaching. Choudhury sued, claiming that the sequence contained in his 1979 book was copyrighted material and that the two pupils had infringed on his copyright.

In a unanimous ruling upholding the lower court’s decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the sequence of 26 poses accompanying instructions were not copyrightable expressions. In a well-reasoned decision, the Court held that the sequence was an ‘idea’ and not an ‘expression of an idea’ and that US copyright law only protected the latter.

Section 102 of the US Code governs federal copyrights and states 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.

At issue was whether the Sequence fell into one of the mentioned categories, or whether it was a ‘tangible medium of expression’ and thus protected. The Court found that the book, its drawings and its text were protected mediums, but that the underlying sequence remained simply an idea. As such, it was an ‘unprotectible idea. Further, because the idea itself was not subject to copyright, the Sequence could not be considered a copyrightable compilation or choreographic work. In the result, the Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the lower court’s decision.

Given the Court’s decision, it appears that, at least for now, any proprietary interest in yoga poses or sequences is nama-staying firmly in the public domain.

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