Bikram Loses Yoga Copyright

bikram yoga class
Photo Credit: sarah bryce

In a small victory won by yoga studios which offer classes resembling Bikram Choudhury’s trademarked 90-minute, 26-pose heated yoga flow, the US Copyright Office has determined that yoga poses and sequences cannot be copyrighted. The decision was reached in response to litigation filed by Bikram against several yoga studios alleged to infringe on copyright laws.  Bikram’s lawsuits also claim violation of teacher-certification agreements and trademark infringement, signifying the Copyright Office’s decision will not end the litigation any time soon.

The studios involved in the lawsuits are NYC-based Yoga to the People (YTTP), which was the subject of scathing critiques by a Bikram studio owner earlier this year; Evolation Yoga’s studios in Buffalo and Brooklyn, NY; and Yen Yoga based in Traverse City, MI.  The suit against YTTP asks for more than one million dollars in damages.

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YTTP-founder Greg Gumucio and some of the instructors at Evolation and Yen Yoga were former students of Bikram, who claims each studio “violated his copyrights and trademarks as well as limitations on how and where students can teach his method.” In response, the defendants insist their hot yoga differs from Bikram’s trademark flow. Additional forms of yoga are also offered at their studios.

Central to the US Copyright Office’s decision is the differentiation between “exercises” (yoga) from “choreography.” Based on the legislative history of the copyright law, acting chief of the Office’s Performing Arts Division, Laura Lee Fisher, notes that exercises, including yoga, “do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography. We will not register such exercises (including yoga movements), whether described as exercises or as selection and ordering of movements.”

Bikram’s attorney Robert Gilcrest downplays the Office’s decision, commenting “There is a presumption that when a copyright is issued, it is valid.”  The US Copyright Office has issued “hundreds of copyrights for exercise videos, but now they’re saying they’re looking at it again and they’ve changed their mind? It is meaningless to this litigation.”

To support their cause, Gumucio has created a website, www.yogatruth.org, to offer information about and an explanation of their position, as well as to show opposition to the “privatization” of yoga. He already has nearly 8,000 signatures.

In a country famous for  copyrighting laws and litigation, this recent decision by the US Copyright Office may be somewhat surprising. Yet it is consistent with a recent decision by India’s government to place more than 1300 yoga asanas (poses) in the public domain by uploading them to the country’s online Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). TKDL-creator Dr. V Gupta says “all of the 26 sequences which are part of Hot Yoga have been mentioned in Indian yoga books written thousands of years ago.”

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Rather than legally challenging Bikram, Gupta notes, this will provide a reference point for patent offices world-wide every time a specific pose is claimed by patent-seeking yoga gurus.

Do you think Bikram will win this lawsuit even though his sequence cannot be copyrighted?

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