February 8, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 39

Advertisement

February 07, 2023

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

February 06, 2023

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

Hold That Pose: Can the Bikram Yoga Sequence Be Protected by Copyright Law?

Over the past decade, the Copyright Office has issued hundreds of yoga-related copyrights for books, videos, and the like —protecting intellectual property for a fitness/spiritual lifestyle that has bent itself into a $27 billion industry. Although yogis have several options to twist themselves into shape, one style in particular has stood off the mat—Bikram yoga.

A type of hatha yoga characterized by a set series of postures and breathing exercises, Bikram yoga is performed in a room heated to a high temperature (roughly 105 degrees Fahrenheit). All Bikram classes run for 90 minutes and consist of the same series of 26 postures (the "Sequence"), including two Pranayama breathing exercises. Popularized by esteemed guru Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, Bikram yoga is now taught by instructors all over the United States.

The popularity of Bikram yoga appears to have shaken the original founder's zen. Indeed, Mr. Choudhury has sued several studios, like NYC's Yoga to the People, for copyright infringement, reaching settlements that have prevented studios from using the Bikram name or copying the Bikram Sequence. Faced with lawsuits, such studios must either sweat it out in court or otherwise capitulate and lie down in savasana (or corpse pose).

One such case occurred in 2011, when Choudhury and Bikram's Yoga College of India sued Evolation Yoga for copyright infringement and related claims (e.g., trademark infringement and violations of teacher-certification agreements). Codefendants (also husband and wife) Mark Drost and Zefea Samson are former trainees of Bikram's course of study and became authorized to teach Bikram's Basic Yoga System. The two eventually formed Evolation Yoga, which uses the same Sequence, prompting a cease-and-desist letter demanding the pair stop teaching Bikram yoga. The plaintiffs argued that the Bikram yoga Sequence should be protected as a compilation and as choreography (and are within the ambit of Choudhury's various copyrights for his yoga-related books depicting the Sequence).

In December 2012, a California court dismissed Choudhury's copyright claims, leaving related trademark and breach of contract claims for a future session. The court remained inflexible to the notion that the Sequence of Bikram yoga poses could be protected by copyright law, causing studios everywhere to relax their muscles. (Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, 2012 WL 6548505 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 14, 2012)).  The court held that although books or photographs that depict a compilation of exercises may be copyrightable, the compilation authorship would not extend to the selection of the exercises themselves depicted in the photographs: "There is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises and the compilation of exercises itself. The former is copyrightable, the latter is not."  Moreover, the court found that, as a functional system that promotes physical and mental benefits, yoga postures cannot be registered for copyright. In dismissing Choudhury's claim, the opinion meditates on a U.S. Copyright Office statement of policy declaring that a compilation of exercise or yoga moves does not fall under one of the Copyright Act's eight categories of authorship. Consequently, and according to the policy statement, yoga poses are ineligible for copyright protections. (See 77 Fed. Reg. 37605 (June 22, 2012).)

Appealing to a higher power (that is, the Ninth Circuit), Choudhury's lawyers are trying to get the case sent back to the yoga mat. Last month at oral argument, Choudhury's counsel argued that, while individual poses are not copyrightable, the guru is trying to protect his "creative vision" in his specific 26-pose Sequence. Balancing yoga positions with ballet poses, Choudhury argued that all such forms of physical movement should be eligible as a protectable compilation or expressive choreographic work, or, at the very least, protectable against verbatim copying.  The appellants also argued that the Copyright Office's policy statement should not be entitled to any deference by the court.

Remaining firm in tadasana (or mountain pose), the defendants reasserted and stretched the lower court's ruling that copyright protection extends only to books containing Choudhury's instructions, not to the routine itself—much like a cookbook author's inability to protect the actual cooking of a recipe.  Bikram's arguments also have drawn bad vibes from Yoga Alliance, an international trade association, which filed an amicus brief in support of defendant, finding that Bikram's position "would be devastating to the yoga community."  

Until the court of appeals releases its decision, Bikram yogis across the country will continue to warrior their way through 105-degree heat. (Don't try this at Om.)

© 2023 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume V, Number 181
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

About this Author

L. Robert Batterman, Labor, Management, Sports, Attorney, Proskauer, Law Firm
Partner

A partner since 1974, Bob Batterman has considerable experience representing both individual employers and multi-employer groups in union relations and collective bargaining. Much of Bob’s time is spent in day-to-day contact with clients, often in “crisis” situations where a rapid resolution of union-related problems is vital.

Bob is a senior member of our nationally recognized Sports Law Group, serving as labor counsel to the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and the National Football League. He has extensive experience in collective...

212-969-3010
Michael Cardozo, Commercial Litigation Attorney, Proskauer, Law Firm
Partner

Michael A. Cardozo is a Partner in Proskauer’s Litigation Department and the former Corporation Counsel for the City of New York. As the city's 77th and longest serving Corporation Counsel, he was the city’s chief legal officer, headed the city's Law Department of more than 700 lawyers, and served from 2002 through 2013 as legal counsel to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, elected officials, the city and its agencies.

Michael’s experience managing large litigations in both the private and public sectors provides him with unique insight into litigation assessments, risk management and...

212-969-3230
Robert L. Freeman, Technology, Media, Sports, Attorney, Proskauer, Law Firm
Partner

Robert E. Freeman is a Partner in the Corporate Department and a member of the Sports Law Group and Technology, Media & Communications Group.

Rob began his career as an intellectual property litigator before shifting the focus of his practice to intellectual property-related transactions. Today, he helps lead a team of media, sports and entertainment attorneys representing clients such as Time Warner Cable, Discovery Communications, the WTA, the Orlando Magic, Scripps Networks, Armstrong Cable, the PAC-12, Insight Communications and CBS Sports. Rob’s work for these clients...

212-969-3170
Howard Ganz, Sports, Employment Attorney, Proskauer, Law Firm
Partner

Howard Ganz is co-head of the Sports Law Group and former co-Chair of the Labor & Employment Law Department.

Howard represents and counsels clients with respect to a wide variety of labor and employment matters, such as employment discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful discharge, defamation, breach of contract, discipline, and large-scale reductions-in-force. His litigation experience has run the gamut, from single plaintiff lawsuits to major class actions, in federal and state courts in New York and elsewhere. The clients Howard has represented include the National...

212-969-3035
Wayne D. Katz, Finance, Sports, Attorney, Proskauer, Law Firm
Partner

Wayne D. Katz is a Partner in the Corporate Department, specializing in the sports industry.

Wayne's experience includes the representation of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League in their various corporate matters, including team ownership transfers and team financings. Major transactions he has worked on for the leagues include the NBA’s purchase and sale of the New Orleans Hornets; the NBA's grant of expansion franchises to Toronto, Vancouver and Charlotte; the NHL's grant of expansion franchises to Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota; the NBA’s $...

212-969-3071
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement