On January 22, Yoga Alliance® submitted an amicus curiae brief (aka “friend-of-the court” brief) in Bikram’s Yoga College vs. Evolation Yoga, a case in which Bikram Choudhury sued the owners of a competing yoga studio for copyright infringement. Choudhury claims that Evolation violated his copyright by teaching a sequence of 26 yoga postures and two breathing exercises that are similar to the sequence that was developed by Choudhury.
The key issue in the case is whether Choudhury owns a copyright in the sequence, which would allow him to prevent others from using it in their own yoga classes. The brief that Yoga Alliance submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit argues that the court should uphold a 2012 district court ruling that Choudhury does not own a copyright in the sequence because “the ruling — that a compilation of exercises or yoga poses is not copyrightable — is essential to the future of the yoga community and the freedom to teach and practice yoga.”
“There is no question that Mr. Choudhury has been responsible for spreading the power of yoga to millions of new practitioners across the globe,” said Richard Karpel, president of Yoga Alliance. “But the important work he has done to help popularize yoga doesn’t give him the right to stifle competition and claim ownership over an asana sequence, which would invite copyright chaos in the yoga community.”
Mark Drost and Zefea Samson, husband and wife, are the owners of Evolation Yoga and defendants in the case. They are former trainees of Choudhury who completed his teacher training program and became certified Bikram instructors in 2002 and 2005, respectively. In 2009, after Choudhury banned Drost from “any and all involvement in Bikram Yoga,” they opened Evolation Yoga studios in Buffalo, New York and Tampa, Fla. Evolation offers several different types and styles of yoga, including hot yoga classes that include 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises that are similar to Choudhury’s.
On July 1, 2011, Choudhury filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging several claims against Evolation, including copyright infringement. Evolation denied the claims. A year later, the U.S. Copyright Office issued an advisory opinion stating that “a claim in a compilation of exercises or the selection and arrangement of yoga poses will be refused registration.”
On December 14, 2012, the district court granted Evolation’s motion for partial summary judgment, finding that Choudhury’s sequence was not copyrightable. Choudhury appealed the ruling, and it is that appeal which is the subject of the present case.
The briefs filed by Bikram and Evolation focus primarily on Bikram’s argument that Choudhury’s sequence “is entitled to protection under the Copyright Act as both a compilation of yoga asanas and as a choreographic work.” Evolation concedes that Choudhury owns the copyright in his book, originally published in 1979, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. However, Evolation notes that while copyright law protects the expression of an idea fixed in a tangible medium like a book, a painting or an article on the Internet, it doesn’t protect the idea itself. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this fundamental principle of copyright law, according to Evolation’s brief.
Meanwhile, Yoga Alliance’s brief focuses on the public policy aspects of the case, describing the widespread chaos that would result in the yoga community if Bikram’s claims were upheld:
Expanding copyright protection to include Plaintiffs’ sequence of yoga poses would thwart the ability of others to teach yoga, to practice yoga, and to develop other sequences of yoga poses. Now, yoga teachers are free to choose whatever sequence of yoga poses they like, without fear of triggering a copyright infringement lawsuit. They are free to innovate, to develop their own sequences of yoga poses without fear that someone else may have already copyrighted a similar sequence of yoga poses. All of that would change dramatically if copyright protection were expanded to include sequences of yoga poses, as Plaintiffs urge. Certainly, one might expect a flood of copyright applications for yoga poses – if for no other reason, yoga teachers might want to protect their ability to continue teaching their preferred sequences, which would be threatened if someone else first obtained a copyright for that sequence. The end result would be chaos – innovation would be suppressed, rather than promoted.
The Ninth Circuit Court of appeals is expected to set oral arguments in the case in approximately one year.