Can a yoga pose be copyrighted?

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Since yoga found mainstream success in the United States beginning in the 1960s, it’s exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry. There is quite the array of styles, from traditional styles like hatha and vinyasa, to more exotic variations like power yoga, disco yoga, naked yoga, and, of course, hot yoga.

One particular flavor of hot yoga, Bikram yoga, has been at the center of a long legal battle over copyrights that finally ended earlier this month. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, which is an unvarying series of 26 poses and breathing exercises done in a 104-degree room during a 90-minute session, lost his attempt to copyright the yoga practice he named after himself.

‘An unprotectable idea’

On October 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California ruled that Bikram yoga was not eligible for copyright protection. The script that Bikram yoga instructors follow closely, on the other hand, can be copyrighted and, in fact, is in a book by Choudhury. But what the latest court ruling ensures is that the order of poses cannot be copyrighted. The U.S. Copyright Office had already declared that individual yoga poses were ineligible for copyright protection.

The opinion, upholding the district court’s 2012 decision, noted the difference between attempting to copyright an idea, which is not copyrightable, and attempting to copyright the expression of the idea, which is. The court determined that “The Sequence,” as Choudhury calls it, “was not a proper subject of copyright protection because it was an idea, process, or system designed to improve health, rather than an expression of an idea. Because the Sequence was an unprotectable idea, it was also ineligible for copyright protection as a compilation or choreographic work.”

The decision means yoga studios teaching Choudhury’s signature sequence may continue to do so without paying franchising fees or securing permission first.

Making friends and enemies in the yoga world

Choudhury’s method has garnered him many loyal fans—600 franchises around the world currently teach Bikram yoga to thousands of students—but he’s amassed a large number of detractors, too.

Part of that may be attributed to jealousy. After all, Choudhury’s Los Angeles studio is a celebrity magnet, and he’s worked with the likes of Madonna, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Shirley MacLaine. He’s also created a fortune for himself. In 2009, Forbes estimated that his yearly training boot camps alone were bringing in nearly $5 million.

Or maybe it’s something worse: Choudhury has been accused of sexually assaulting 6 women during training. He has denied all charges against him.

In addition, many people don’t appreciate his seemingly materialistic approach to what is supposed to be a primarily spiritual practice that has been around—and free—for 6,000 years.

The yogi who didn’t settle                             

In the early 2000s, Choudhury’s attorneys began sending out cease and desist letters to studios teaching Bikram yoga without authorization. Some studios and teachers taught the class the way Choudhury intended, closely following his script, utilizing the correct number and sequence of poses, and practicing in a carpeted room with bright lights and no music. Others used the name but didn’t adhere to all the guidelines. Most studios and teachers settled out of court to avoid long and expensive trials.

But one yogi didn’t settle. Mark Drost, a former student and friend of Choudhury, was teaching hot yoga at the studio he founded, Evolation Yoga, when he, too, received a cease and desist letter. Rather than settle, he went to trial. The district court and, later, the appellate court found in his favor.

Choudhury and his supporters said part of the rationale behind attempting to protect the Bikram yoga practice was to maintain the integrity of the sequence, which they say was created as the safest way to do the poses.

The appellate court likened the idea of Choudhury copyrighting a sequence of yoga poses to the idea of a doctor copyrighting a surgical technique. The doctor may copyright the book that describes the surgical technique, but he or she cannot copyright the technique itself.

Long story short, you can feel free to do your toe stands and cobra poses without fear of legal reprisal.