There is a lawsuit pending in California in which a yoga master is suing his former pupil and the pupil’s yoga company alleging that the pupil breached the terms of a license agreement that allowed the student to teach the master’s copyrighted “Bikram” yoga system. The yoga master alleges in his complaint that he developed the Bikram system, which is comprised of 26 separate yoga positions and two breathing exercises in a precise order, and has promoted it since 1971. The plaintiff copyrighted his specific yoga program in 1978 and has only allowed it to be taught by others if they sign and adhere to his license agreement. The former pupil entered into the license agreement but his business, Yoga to the People, has since offered cheaper classes that don’t meet the requirements of the license under the name, “Traditional Hot Yoga.” The plaintiff sued in September and the defendants recently answered the complaint, denying any liability and arguing that “’Bikram methods’ are utilitarian systems, incapable of copyright or trademark protection. Further, there are no ‘Bikram postures.’ Each and every one of the yoga postures (or “poses” or “asanas“) used in Bikram Yoga classes was developed and recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, and are in the public domain.”
More importantly, the defendants’ answer also shed light on the copyright office’s current position as to whether exercise routines are protected as “choreography” under the Copyright Act. The defendants attached a letter to their answer from the U.S. Copyright Office’s Performing Arts Division’s acting chief that confirmed that yoga exercise sequences no longer qualify as protectable choreography under U.S. Copyright law:
“Our general position with respect to exercise routines has changed in the last few years,” Acting Chief Laura Lee Fischer said in the letter. “Previously we took the position that although functional physical movements did not represent the type of authorship which Congress intended to be protected under the copyright law, we could register the selection and ordering of public domain exercises.”
But “more recently, we have had occasion to re-evaluate this position,” Fischer said. “Exercises, including yoga exercises, do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography. Thus, we will not register such exercises (including yoga movements), whether described as exercises or as selection and ordering of movements.”
This letter isn’t necessarily binding on the California federal court (and certainly doesn’t bode well for the plaintiff), but it does tell us the Copyright Office’s current position on whether a system of exercises is protectable or not: the answer is “no.”
The case is Bikram’s Yoga College of India LP et al. v. Yoga to the People Inc. et al., Docket No. 2:11-cv-07998, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.