Appeals Court Denies Bikram Yoga Copyright

Bikram Choudhury denied yoga copyright
Photo by Sarah Stout

Can yoga posture sequences be copyrighted? Certain yoga teachers have believed so. In 2011, Bikram Choudhury (pioneer of Bikram yoga) unsuccessfully filed suit against several yoga studios, alleging infringement of copyright laws for teaching his signature 90-minute, 26-pose heated yoga series. Bikram appealed the decision, but on October 8, 2015, the appeals court upheld the ruling, affirming that his yoga sequence is not entitled to copyright protection.

Copyright law protects the expression of ideas but not the underlying ideas themselves. For example, if someone authors a book, the book itself is an expression of an idea and can be copyrighted to prohibit plagiarism. However, the ideas contained within the book cannot be copyrighted, and they can be used by other people. This distinction between ideas and their expression is the key to copyright law. Here, the court affirmed that Bikram’s 26-pose sequence was a “collection of facts and ideas” rather than an expression of ideas, and as such was not subject to copyright protection. So, what does this decision mean for Bikram Choudhury, yoga teachers, and the yoga community in general?

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For Bikram, the decision means that he cannot claim unauthorized use of his sequence under copyright law. Yoga teachers can structure classes with whichever series of postures strike them as appropriate, without worrying about someone suing them for using a sequence without consent. Essentially, you could use the 26-pose sequence developed by Bikram – just don’t advertise it as “Bikram” yoga, since the name is trademarked.

“Trademark” means that someone has a right to identify and distinguish their brand by the use of its name, logo, symbol, or design. This is different from copyright in that the brand’s identifying features are protected, not the expression of the work itself. Bikram’s trademark applies to the specific name “Bikram.” So teachers can teach Bikram yoga as long as they don’t call it that. They can advertise for generic “hot yoga” or the popular “hot 26” series without anxiety of legal consequences for trademark infringement.

Patents are another area of law relevant to this case. The court noted that Bikram’s sequence might be “protected by the patent process.” Patents protect inventions – meaning they apply to ideas, which (remember!) are not protected by copyright. But it’s unlikely that a patent is the next step for Bikram Choudhury. One requirement for a patent is that the invention be “novel.” Yoga, in its various forms and sequences, has long been known, used, and sold as a marketable commodity. Bikram’s yoga likely wouldn’t be found “novel” in the strict sense required for a patent.

So, it appears that this case on October 8 marks the end of the road for Bikram’s attempts to gain exclusive control over his yoga sequence. However, the option remains to request a review of the appeals court’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, the highest court of the United States. It’s yet to be determined whether Bikram will invest more time and money pursuing this avenue in hopes that a different outcome might be reached.

For the yoga community, the implications might not be so clear. On one hand, copyright law actually promotes creativity. It encourages people to invest time in the development of beneficial new ideas. Will teachers lose motivation to develop new sequences and yoga styles if they don’t think there will be any legal protection for their effort or monetary benefit to their work? Or perhaps the denial of copyright protection for specific yoga sequences is the ultimate promotion of creativity. Does it speak to the heart of yoga—to unity, communication, greater good, and the open, expressive sharing of ideas and knowledge?  What do you think? How does copyright law affect yoga? Do you think yoga sequences should be copyrighted?

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