The US Court of Appeals recently took this question on in the case of Bikram Yoga College of India v Evolution Yoga, LLC, which dealt with the aforementioned yoga style. Bikram Choudhury's version of Hatha yoga consists of 26 different 'asanas', or in other words, poses, and two breathing exercises, all collectively known as the Sequence. He also released a book called "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class" in late the 1970s, and registering its with the US Copyright Office along with a 'compilation of exercises' some time later. The final chapter in the development of his yoga empire was the launch of a Bikram Yoga instructors course in the late 1990s, called the "Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course", where individuals could learn the Sequence and the underlying philosophy of Bikram Yoga and instruct others in the same. In the early 2000s, Mark Frost and Zefea Samson participated in the course, and subsequently founded Evolution Yoga, where they taught, among other classes, "hot yoga", which was similar to Bikram's take on yoga. Mr. Choudhury subsequently took the two to court, alleging copyright infringement of his copyright protected works.
The case stems from the idea-expression dichotomy, which separates the protection of ideas without an expressive manifestation in a tangible form. The Court therefore had to assess whether the Sequence would amount to a mere idea, or whether it would be a form of expression protected by copyright.
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Ultimately, the Sequence was deemed to be not protected by copyright. Even though Mr. Choudhury's Sequence promotes health and the development of human mental and physical well-being, the Court determined it fell short from copyright's remit. Judge Wardlaw did, however, remark that "...if it is entitled to protection at all, that protection is more properly sought through the patent process". The prevention of competition was also a consideration for the Court, as they saw that "[c]onsumers would have little reason to buy Choudhury's book if Choudhury held a monopoly on the practice of the very activity he sought to popularize. Rather than "stimulat[ing] artistic creativity for the general public good," copyright protection for the Sequence would prevent the public from engaging with... [the] idea and building upon it".
Mr. Choudhury also argued that the Sequence should be protected as a compilation work under 17 U.S.C. § 103. Judge Warlaw quickly rejected this argument, as, for a work to be awarded protection under section 103, it would first have to qualify as a protectable work under section 102; something that, as the above shows, it failed to do. The argument was based on Mr. Choudhury's arrangement and organization of the poses and exercises within the Sequence, but this still does not extend copyright to subject matter that it did not protect to begin with. This makes sense, as it seeks to prevent the protection of non-qualifying works, since the extension of compilation protection to works not covered by section 102 could open the floodgates for works not contemplated by the legislature in drafting the law.
Finally, the last argument dealt with by the Court was whether the Sequence would be protected as a choreographic work under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(4). Similarly to the above, the claim fails due to a lack of protection as a qualifying work under section 102 from the very beginning. As settled by Judge Wardlaw: "[e]ven if the Sequence could fit within some colloquial definitions of dance or choreography, it remains a process ineligible for copyright protection".
The case remains a novelty in the sphere of copyright, and offers very little that was not known already. Yet, it does highlight an important aspect of intellectual property law: the importance of picking your form of protection. Should Mr. Choudhury sought patent protection for the Sequence, he could have potentially used it to prevent others from using his Sequence, or teaching similar routines at non-affiliated yoga studios. Even so, he did not, and fell foul of copyright and its remit.