Last week, in Bikram’s Yoga College v. Evolation Yoga, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Bikram Yoga Sequence, familiar to many “Yogis” as a prime means of exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, is not subject to copyright protection.
Bikrim Choudhury is a self-proclaimed “Yogi to the stars” who has reportedly extended the careers of professional athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe through his yoga teachings. Choudhury developed a specific sequence of yoga poses (known as “the Sequence”) after extensive research, which involves twenty-six poses and two breathing exercises in a specified order. The Sequence is practiced over the course of ninety minutes to a series of instructions, in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate Choudhury’s native climate of India. This has come to be known as “Bikrim Yoga.”
In 1979, Choudhury applied to the U.S. Copyright Office for copyright registration of his book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. The book includes descriptions, photographs, and drawings of the Sequence and provides guidance to its readers regarding how the Sequence should be performed. In 2002, Choudhury registered the Sequence using a supplementary registration form that referenced the 1979 registration for his book.
Thereafter, Choudhury learned that two former students of his Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course started a yoga studio, Evolation Yoga LLC, at which they offered “hot yoga” similar to Bikram Yoga in that it included the Sequence in a 90 minute class with oral instructions in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees. In 2011, Choudhury and Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. sued Evolation Yoga LLC for copyright infringement in the Central District of California. The District Court dismissed Choudhury’s claim for copyright infringement, holding that the “Sequence is a collection of facts and ideas” that is not entitled to copyright protection. Choudhury appealed to the Ninth Circuit for copyright protection of the Sequence.
The Copyright Act explicitly excludes from protection “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.” On review, the Ninth Circuit confirmed that Choudhury’s book registered in 1979 is subject to copyright protection because it explains to its readers the method of yoga that it describes. However, the Appeals Court highlighted the deficiencies in Choudhury’s application for copyright protection of the Sequence, noting that Choudhury himself described the Sequence as a “system” and “method” designed to help the body to maintain optimum health and function. The Court concluded that the Sequence cannot be a compilation and/or choreographic work because, “at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health,” which copyright law expressly excludes from the breadth of its protection. The Court accurately observed that “[c]onsumers would have little reason to buy Choudhury’s book if Choudhury held a monopoly on the practice of the very activity he sought to popularize.”
This decision is a reminder to all artists that ideas and performance methods, in and of themselves, are not subject to copyright protection. Ironically, “How-To” books that describe authors’ unique methods of performance have the unintended consequence of highlighting the fact that those methods are ineligible for copyright protection. As noted by the Ninth Circuit, the method “would be frustrated if the knowledge could not be used without incurring the guilt of piracy of the book.”