Bikram Choudhury’s famous sequence of twenty-six yoga poses and two breathing exercises—which is performed over ninety minutes in a humid, 105-degree room—is not copyrightable, says the Ninth Circuit. Choudhury, the self-proclaimed “Yogi to the stars,” popularized this form of “hot yoga” after emigrating to Beverly Hills in the early 1970s, and he detailed the practice in his 1979 book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. Noting that the issue before it “implicate[d] a fundamental principle underlying constitutional and statutory copyright protection—the idea/expression dichotomy,” the Ninth Circuit found that the Bikram Yoga Sequence (the “Sequence”) was an idea, rather than an expression of an idea, and was therefore not entitled to copyright protection.

The copyright suit arose after two of Choudhury’s former students founded Evolation Yoga and began to offer “hot yoga” classes consisting of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises completed in the same conditions as the Bikram Sequence. Choudhury filed suit against Evolation, asserting that § 102(a) of the US Copyright Act protected his Sequence as a compilation or choreographic work. The district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Holding that the district court properly granted Evolation’s motion for partial summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit found that the Bikram Sequence was not copyrightable in its own right and that the copyright protection for Choudhury’s book did not extend to the Sequence.

The court rejected the contention that the Sequence qualified as copyrightable choreography, noting that while undefined in the copyright context, “choreography” must consist of more than “mere exercises” or a “healing art.” Neither is the sequence a copyrightable “compilation,” according to the court, just as a cake recipe cannot be copyrighted as a “‘compilation’ of carefully arranged and selected steps.” The court explained the practical rationale behind this finding, noting that “[o]ur day-to-day lives consist of many routinized physical movements, from brushing one’s teeth to pushing a lawnmower to shaking a Polaroid picture, that could be . . . characterized as forms of dance. Without a proper understanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, one might obtain monopoly rights over these functional physical sequences by describing them in a tangible medium of expression and labeling them choreographic works.” Thus, despite the spiritual, health, and aesthetic benefits of Bikram Yoga, common sense, case law, and the Copyright Act dictated the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Choudhury’s Sequence is not copyrightable.

Katherine Dutcher


Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *