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Copyright Office and Court Says Down with the Downward Dog

On Dec. 14, 2012, in Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, a Federal District Court in California, agreed with the U.S. Copyright Office, in deciding that a series of yoga poses is not protectable as a work of authorship under the United States Copyright Act. Bikram Choudhury developed “Bikram Yoga” – a set of 26 yoga poses and a couple of breathing exercises which are to be performed in the same sequence and manner (90 minutes in a 105°F room). He wrote several books discussing and demonstrating the program, and obtained copyright registrations for those books. Subsequently, Evolation Yoga operated yoga studios which offered the Bikram Yoga experience without Bikram Choudhury’s permission. After Evolation Yoga refused to stop its practice of Bikram Yoga, Choudhury unsuccessfully sued the company for copyright infringement, among other claims. To understand why Choudhury’s copyright claims failed, it is necessary to unfold certain provisions of the Copyright Act.

To prove copyright infringement, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that it owns a valid copyright in the infringed work (which was subsequently copied). Copyright protection is afforded to original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act outlines the subject matter, or the types of original works, protected by the Copyright Act.Not all works warrant protection. It explains that “works of authorship include the following categories:

  (1) literary works;
  (2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
  (3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  (4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
  (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  (6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  (7) sound recordings; and
  (8) architectural works.”

Choudhury claimed that, through his books (i.e., literary works) that discuss and demonstrate the Bigram Yoga sequence of poses, he obtained copyright protection for the Bikram Yoga sequence of poses itself.The Court disagreed explaining that Choudhury’s copyright registrations cover books, but that “[t]here is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises and the compilation of exercises itself.”While Choudhury may be entitled to copyright protection for the creative elements of the literary work, he is not entitled to protect the yoga poses as such. If Evolation Yoga had published its own book which borrowed from Choudhury’s publications, Choudhury’s infringement claim may be justified. However, the Bikgram Yoga compilation of exercises, according to the Court, is a “collection of facts and ideas” which is not protectable under U.S. Copyright Law. Therefore, Evolation Yoga’s public performance of Bikgram Yoga does not amount to infringement.     

Moreover, and arguably more importantly, the Court said the Bikram Yoga sequence “is merely a procedure or system of exercises.” This is important because Section 102(b) of 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.” The Court based its assessment largely on the Copyright Office’s explanation that “[i]n the view of the Copyright Office, a selection, coordination, or arrangement of exercise movements, such as a compilation of yoga poses, may be precluded from registration as a functional system or process in cases where the particular movements and the order in which they are to be performed are said to result in improvements in one's health or physical or mental condition.” Because Bikram Choudhury has admitted that the specific sequence and manner in which Bikram Yoga is to be performed “is capable of helping to avoid, correct, cure, heal, and alleviate the symptoms of a variety of diseases and health issues,” then it is a functional system or process which is not protected by U.S. Copyright Law. This is likely to true of most exercises and workout routines, casting doubt over the validity of other copyright registrations for such programs.

Bikram Choudhury countered that even if the Bikram Yoga poses are non-protectable “facts and ideas,” the sequence is a compilation, which protects the creative selection, coordination, and arrangement of certain components parts even if those components parts are not protectable individually. Not to be outstretched, the Court, again relying on the Copyright Office, explained that exercise is not one of the eight categories of copyrightable subject matter listed above (specifically a pantomime or choreographic work). Therefore, a compilation of exercises is not copyrightable subject matter either.In other words, a compilation is protectable insofar as its component parts consist of copyrightable subject matter.If the compilation is comprised of non-copyrightable subject matter, then the compilation is non-copyrightable as well.

In sum, the Bikram Yoga sequence is excluded from the definition of copyrightable subject matter.Therefore, neither the exercises themselves, nor a compilation thereof, constitute original works of authorship. Consequently, Bikram Choudhury could not satisfy the first element of his copyright infringement claim against Evolation Yoga.

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