Yoga as Copyrightable IP: Bikram v. Yoga to the People

By Rachel Cannon

Updated 7/25/12 to more clearly explain relevant copyright law, and to incorporate subsequent Copyright Office policy statements regarding registering compilations.

Bikram Choudhury, a celebrity of sorts in the yogic world, is known for being the founder of Bikram yoga, as well as for being an unusually litigious yogi. He has famously filed many suits in the past decade in order to protect a number of his trademarks and copyrights – see page 8 of his most recent complaint for a full description of each. Choudhury is notorious for strictly controlling the Bikram Yoga experience, and for his willingness to take legal action to do so. Few people dispute Choudhury’s right to protect his trademarks against studios that use his name without permission. Of more interest is his copyright for his 26 pose sequence performed in a humid 105- degree room. He has previously sued studios for altering the class structure as he envisions it, including those changing portions of his signature sequence, for adding music to his classes, or for lowering the temperature of the room.

It is not hard to understand why Choudhury would want to control the use of a product that he developed with his own time and effort. However, the primary question has been whether Choudhury’s copyright protections extend as far as he would like them to. While each of Choudhury’s suits represented an opportunity for courts weigh in on how yoga postures and sequencing should be classified, each of these cases has settled out of court and, therefore, none has produced any precedent.

His most recent suit is against Yoga to the People, an organization based on changing the growing reality that yoga was becoming an activity reserved for the socioeconomically elite group who could afford expensive studio fees. YTTP’s classes are often donation-based and represent a major economic shift in the business of yoga. Gregory Gumucio, a Manhattan yoga instructor for YTTP and a graduate of Bikram’s training, offers a “traditional hot yoga” class for less than half the price of a Bikram studio. Choudhury is suing YTTP and Gumucio for the use of his copyrighted sequence, among other claims (complaint and answer).

IP experts debate the validity of this claim. If Bikram Yoga is a system comprised of a unique organization of non-copyrightable content under § 102, such a system cannot be registered under Baker v. Selden. Choudhury may have been protected under patent law if he could argue that his method is a functional process. However, this issue is moot, as he has no such patents. Choudhury has instead relied on the argument that his sequencing was more akin to choreography, which has previously been afforded U.S. copyright protection. This core argument supporting his copyright claims has recently been weakened; an email from an employee from the U.S. Copyright Office stated on December 7th that, upon review, they have changed their position so that sequences of yoga exercises are no longer protectable as choreography. While the email is by no means an official statement of policy, and doesn’t end the litigation (because one can sue even if the Copyright Office refuses to register), it is a blow to Choudhury. Courts consider, to varying degrees, the Copyright Office’s position when reviewing copyright infringement claims. While it may not deter Choudhury from bringing future lawsuits, it removes some uncertainty regarding the outcome of the cases, and is an encouragement to defendant studios to not simply settle for fear of losing in court.

To many yogis, this statement from the U.S. Copyright Office foreshadows an end, or at least a weakening, of Bikram’s tactics of legal intimidation. While it does not functionally end the litigation (there are still other claims, such as breach of contract, that are not settled – for more on these, see the complaint, and defendant’s answer), it does drastically affect the legal power Choudhury has zealously wielded against studios that deviate from his strict standards. He has successfully bullied studios into settlement in part due to his economic power, which allows him to afford litigation expenses, but also because no one was certain how a court would come down on the copyright infringement claim. This is a victory for the traditional notion that no one should own the ancient practice of yoga, and perhaps will help tamp down the decidedly un-yogic legal practices in which Choudhury has engaged in the past decade.

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