Twisted Copyright Claim: Yoga Writer Loses Effort To Copyright Yoga Poses and Breathing Methods

250px-A_yogi_seated_in_a_garden200px-Bikram_ChoudhuryThere is an interesting case out of the 9th Circuit where the court ruled that yogi Bikram Choudhury cannot copyright 26 poses.

We have been discussing a disturbing trend in copyright and trademark claims over things occurring in public or common phrases or terms. (For a prior column, click here). We have often discussed the abusive expansion of copyright and trademark laws. This includes common phrases, symbols, and images being claimed as private property. (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). This included a New York artist claiming that he holds the trademark to symbol π.

This is an exception to that trend. Writing for the majority, Judge Kim Wardlaw found that Choudhury’s breathing exercises and the Bikram yoga poses are not subject to copyright protection.

Choudhury’s Bikram yoga follows strict rules about the sequence of poses, breathing methods as well as the required the temperature and furnishings of hundreds of studios. His studios and books bring in millions of dollars and he says that he has lost some of that money after a former member of Choudhury’s training staff opened up rival studios as well as others who use his poses and breathing exercises. The court held that, under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b), the “Sequence,” developed by Bikram Choudhury and described in his 1979 book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, was not a proper subject of copyright protection because it was an idea, process, or system designed to improve health, rather than an expression of an idea.

This “idea/expression dichotomy” is codified under Section 102. The Court also relied on Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879), where the Supreme Court dealt with a book explaining a system of book-keeping. Id. at 99–100. The Court held that the book’s expression of the book-keeping system was protected, but the system of book-keeping itself was not entitled to copyright protection:

The description of the art in a book, though entitled to the benefit of copyright, lays no foundation for an exclusive claim to the art itself. The object of the one is explanation; the object of the other is use. The former may be secured by copyright. The latter can only be secured, if it can be secured at all, by letters-patent.
Id. at 105.

Here is the full opinion: Choudhury opinion

17 thoughts on “Twisted Copyright Claim: Yoga Writer Loses Effort To Copyright Yoga Poses and Breathing Methods”

  1. When I was in Thailand I went by a temple ruins and spotted a wall with an etching of a man taking a poop. I am wondering if that could be copywrited in America.

  2. Where does the “law” fall in re. DNA squencing? If I remember correctly there are either or both patents or copywrites which impede others from actually using specific DNA components even though they may actually be mine.

    A physical item which is not invented but discovered and the process for extraction is not at issue either. I may not have a clue here. But, ….? How can a discovered sequence within a human be possessed?

  3. Speaking of patents, I recall one of my riding friends was friends with someone who invented a ceramic engine that would almost never wear out. Some major automotive company bought the rights, and then shelved it because it would have made cars last too long.

  4. I worked with a nice old guy who invented something to do with saving gas. He produced a book describing how to build the device. I asked him what would stop me from buying a copy of the book and then building the device for sale. I could not convince him that copyright did not protect his invention.

  5. I don’t know how anyone could copyright yoga poses, as they were developed 5,000 years ago. That would be like trying to copyright a series of motions like sit down, lie back, sit up, stand up . . . how do you copyright uncopyrightable motions?

    You could copyright the name “Yoga Ballet”, but you can’t copyright the concept of incorporating yoga with ballet. At least, I don’t think you can.

    Isn’t Bikram yoga practiced in sweltering, humid studios, and it’s just the same series of poses? I’ve taken a few of those classes. It’s like a sweat lodge, which, I suppose, approximates the climate of India in May. So maybe they’re trying for authentic.

    But my favorite yoga classes were taught by an amazing yogi who made every class different and interesting. He would say impossible things, like have this part of your muscle stretch toward the floor and the other side reach toward the ceiling. I don’t know how he accomplished it, but after challenging my muscles in new and painful ways, I always bounced out of that class both relaxed and energized. Sadly, he went back to India for a journey of spiritual enlightenment, and I never found another like him. Somehow, the American yoga instructors I’ve tried just seem to be leading the class through repetitive stretches, and they can’t capture the meditative quality.

    Nick – I would so like to be a fly on the wall in the copyright application for that one!

    1. Nick – I think the Kama Sutra is in the public domain, however specific translations can still be copyrighted. The activities are up to you. 🙂

  6. I assume he could publish a book on the poses and copyright that book.

    What about a patent regarding yoga poses? Maybe an intellectual property rights attorney can comment on a patent for protecting his invention of specific yoga poses that improve health.

  7. I enjoy this copyright series. And, this is the type of topic that seems to have normal threads.

  8. Hmmmn. We citizens line up, place our right hand over our chest at the heart level, stand up straight, say “repeat after me”, and then say the words in The Pledge of Allegiance. If some nurd, describes this in a written text and publishes it, and he wants copyright protection for the routine itself, then he deserves copyright protection? Substitute other mantras, other athletic activities which are rote. I am going to write a How To book for dogs called Give Me A Dog Biscuit. I want to copyright the dog routine. No other dog will be able thereafter write about “the dog routine” for doggie wants a biscuit.

  9. Hmmm very interesting. So, I can copyright my novel, but not the idea in my novel. No wonder we see the same plot all the time

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