The US Court of Appeals (the Court) recently gave judgment on whether a type of yoga would fall within the remit of copyright in the case of Bikram Yoga College of India v. Evolution Yoga, LLC, 2015 WL 5845415.  The case concerned Bikram yoga – a popular style of yoga developed by Bikram Choudry (the plaintiff in the present case) over 20 years ago which consists of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercise, designed to systematically work every part of the body, and is performed in a hot room.

In 1979 the plaintiff published a book, "Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class", and registered it, along with a "compilation of exercises" with the US Copyright Office.  This was followed in the late 1990s by a "Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course", enabling yoga enthusiasts (commonly known as "yogis") to learn his methods and teach Bikram classes.  In the early 2000s, Mark Frost and Zefea Samson (the second and third defendants in this case) participated in the course, and subsequently founded Evolution Yoga (the first defendant), where they taught "hot yoga", a concept very similar to Bikram yoga.  The Plaintiff alleged that the teaching of this "hot yoga" infringed copyright of his protected works, as outlined in his book.

The Court had to decide whether the poses, and the sequence of them, could be protected under US copyright, and as part of this, whether the poses and breathing exercises would be classed as mere ideas, or the expression of specific ideas, thereby falling within or outside the scope of copyright protection.

Following the case of Palmer v Braun, which denied copyright protection to meditation exercises, the Court ruled that the plaintiff was seeking to protect the idea of yoga exercises, and not a tangible, proper form of expression falling within the remit of copyright protection.  Whereas the plaintiff contended that the "beauty" and "grace" within the sequence should allow for its protection, the Court dismissed this, ruling that beauty is not a basis for copyright protection, and the fact that a process is beautiful does not permit it to gain a monopoly to exclude others from practising it.  

The plaintiff also argued that the sequence was a protectable "compilation" under 17 U.S.C. § 103(a) through the selection, coordination and arrangement of the particular poses in their respective sequence, however the Court also rejected this argument, ruling that notwithstanding the fact that a non-copyright protected work may consist of several constituent parts, that doesn’t mean it is afforded protection through the compilation of those specific parts.  Even if the plaintiff’s selection and arrangement of the sequence had an underlying objective and intention, it still remained a process, excluded under section 103.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the sequence was a protectable choreographic work under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(4). The Court also rejected this, given that the protection under section 102 requires the underlying work to be protectable; which the Court had already ruled that it was not.  While the addition of a new sub-section to section 102 allowed for the inclusion of choreographic works, it still would not extend to mere ideas. 

Whereas the Court rejected the argument that yoga poses could be protected by copyright, in a straightforward and direct application of the law, the case demonstrates the potentially far reaching and flexible consequences of copyright law, and the significance of choosing the correct form of protection for intellectual property.