Can a sequence of yoga poses be copyrighted? An update on the Bikram copyright lawsuits

June 13, 2013

Bikram Yoga has appealed a recent ruling in its copyright suit against Evolation Yoga, which posed the question, can a sequence of yoga poses be copyrighted?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals initially granted summary judgment for Evolation on December 14, 2012, stating that a sequence of yoga asanas cannot be copyrighted:

“Copyrights cover an author’s creative expression of facts and ideas—the facts and ideas themselves are not protected. Defendants Evolation Yoga, LLC, Mark Drost, and Zefea Samson contend that they do not infringe on Plaintiff Bikram Choudhury’s copyrights by teaching or performing the yoga sequence described in the copyrighted works. Choudhury insists that they do infringe; the copyrights are broad and cover not only the actual written or audiovisual works, but the depicted yoga sequence as well—like a pantomime or choreographic work. The Court concludes that the yoga sequence itself is not covered under Choudhury’s copyrights and thus, there can be no infringement. Accordingly, the court GRANTS Defendant’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment… 
The Copyright Office made clear that ‘exercise is not a category of authorship in section 102 and thus a compilation of exercises would not be copyrightable subject matter.’” (June 22, 2012). Thus, even if the manner in which Choudhury arranged the Sequence is unique, the Sequence would not be copyrightable subject matter because individual yoga poses are not copyrightable subject matter.” 

While Bikram Yoga’s argument was rejected by the court, they appealed the ruling last month. A ruling in favor of Bikram Yoga could set precedent not only for additional lawsuits by this particular plaintiff, but for other instructors and organizations to make similar claims based on their particular sequences of poses, placing everyone in the industry at risk for infringement claims. 

The case was initiated after a falling out between the two organizations, Evolation Yoga, L.L.C. and Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. Evolation is an enterprise started by two yoga instructors in N.Y. who completed Choudhury’s certification course and were certified to teach Bikram’s Basic Yoga System. They currently operate several yoga studios in NY, FL and Costa Rica, and plan to open 10 more studio locations soon. Evolation is just one of several yoga studios that Bikram Yoga has sued for copyright infringement of the 26-pose sequence.

Evolation commented on the lawsuit:

“Evolation has not been looking for a fight, but when we found ourselves defending against this stranglehold on a practice that has been handed down without restrictions throughout its history — essentially, defending yoga itself — we resolved to take it all the way in service to the greater community…This case has an effect on yoga studios and teachers all over the US and around the world.”

By making an appeal, Bikram Yoga argues that Bikram’s sequence is indeed copyrightable, contesting both the summary judgment decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Copyright Office Policy Statement. The agency’s Policy Statement, issued in June 2012, declared that sequences of yoga asanas could not be protected as compilations, since they were not compilations of any of the kinds of works protected by copyright law.

However, this is only a statement of policy, and not law, so the courts may decide otherwise.

The opening brief from Bikram Yoga is due October 15, 2013 and we will continue to share updates with you as we learn more. 

Related articles:

The Bikram lawsuits and why it matters to you - April 18, 2013

Yoga Alliance® Opposes Bikram Copyright Claim - Jan. 31, 2014

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