Too much of a stretch to recognise copyright in yoga?

The US Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit has held that the famous sequence of yoga poses (or “asanas”) developed by Bikram Choudhury (and performed at 40°C) does not attract copyright protection. A copy of the decision is here.

Choudhury sued a yoga studio, Evolation Yoga, established by two former students, which offered hot yoga classes in which the sequence of 26 poses was performed. Evolation obtained an order that Choudhury’s case be summarily dismissed on the basis that the sequence was not entitled to copyright protection. Choudhury sought to overturn this finding on appeal.

Choudhury tried to establish copyright protection in two ways. First, he argued that the sequence was an original compilation. Secondly, he argued that the sequence was entitled to protection as a choreographic work.

The Court rejected both arguments for the same reason – the sequence (said the Court) is a mere idea, system or process rather than a form of expression that can be the subject of protection. In the words of the Court, “[Choudhury] attempts to secure copyright protection for a healing art: a system designed to yield physical benefits and a sense of well-being. Simply put, this attempt is precluded by copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy…”

In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that in his book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class Choudhury invites his readers to practice the sequence. The Court identified that Choudhury’s claim to copyright would prevent the public from practising Bikram yoga (which would probably also be bad karma).

This yogi thinks that the outcome is right, but the reasoning is a little shaky.

The sequence was the product of significant work by Choudhury and its performance involves assuming numerous specific poses in a set order. It is, therefore, hard to see how the Court took the view that the sequence is a mere idea rather than the original expression of an idea. It is also difficult to see why the comments in Choudhury’s book, encouraging readers to practice the sequence, are relevant to this issue (i.e. idea vs expression).

If Choudhury brought a copyright claim in Australia, he would need to establish that the sequence is an original dramatic work which includes a “choreographic show”. The US Court accepted that Choudhury had exercised significant judgment in devising the sequence which would probably satisfy the originality test. The challenge would be establishing that the sequence has the characteristics of a “performance” to bring it within the scope of a “choreographic show”. This is probably where Choudhury’s Australian claim would fall over.

Yogis everywhere will surely be celebrating their ability to practice Bikram yoga without paying royalties or risking litigation.