In an interesting decision regarding whether copyright protection may extend to a sequence of yoga poses, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a sequence of yoga poses is a collection of facts and ideas that is not subject to copyright protection.

The case arises from a book entitled Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class published in 1979 by Bikram Choudhury wherein he described a sequence of twenty-six yoga poses and two breathing exercises arranged in a particular order that he developed and called the “Sequence”. The Sequence is practiced in Bikram Yoga classes for ninety minutes to a series of instructions in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate Choudhury’s native Indian climate. Choudhury’s claims that he developed the Sequence after “many of years of research and verification . . . using modern medical measurement techniques” and popularized the Sequence by marketing its various health benefits. Choudhury registered the book with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1979. In 2002, he also registered the “compilation of exercises” contained in the book, using a supplementary registration form that referenced back to the 1979 book.

In 1994, Choudhury introduced the “Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course and in 2002 and 2005, respectively, Defendants Mark Drost and Zefea Samson enrolled in and successfully completed the three-month course. Choudhury franchises his Bikram Yoga practice and Sequence to hundreds of studios. In 2009, Drost and Samson founded Evolation Yoga, LLC. Evolation Yoga offers several types and styles of yoga, including “hot yoga,” which is similar to “Bikram’s Basic Yoga System.” In 2011, Choudhury and Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. brought a lawsuit against defendants Evolation Yoga, LLC, Mark Drost, and Zefea Samson alleging, inter alia, that they infringed “Bikram’s Copyrighted Works through substantial use of Bikram’s copyrighted works in and as part of Defendants’ offering of yoga classes.” The Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of partial summary judgment to the Defendant and found that the “Sequence” is a collection of facts and ideas that is not subject to copyright protection.

In determining the scope – and not the validity- of Choudhury’s copyright protection, the Ninth Circuit found that the copyright protection does not extend to the Sequence itself. The Ninth Circuit held that “the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea—the words and pictures used to describe the Sequence—and not the idea ] of the Sequence itself. Because the Sequence is an unprotectible idea, it is also ineligible for copyright protection as a “compilation” or “choreographic work.” “The Court explained that “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, codified by Section 102(b).” Therefore, the Court upheld the district court’s grant of partial summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.

The decision will permit yoga instructors and studios across the country to teach the Sequence without fear of violating Choudhury’s copyrights.

Click here to read the full opinion.