No Copyright Protection for Hot Yoga Sequence

People engage in yoga training to achieve anything ranging from spiritual fulfillment to overall physical fitness.  Bikram Choudhury developed a sequence of twenty-six yoga poses and two breathing exercises (the Sequence), described in his book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class.  Choudhury’s Bikram Yoga studios offer instruction in performing the Sequence over a ninety minute session in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Choudhury actively markets the health and fitness benefits the Sequence provides.  Mark Drost and Zefea Samson completed the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training course and later, in 2009, opened Evolution Yoga.  Evolution Yoga teaches a 26 posture and 2 breathing exercise routine performed in 90 minutes in a 105 degree Fahrenheit room. 

Choudhury and Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. sued Evolution Yoga for infringing Bikram’s copyright in the Sequence.  The district court granted Evolution’s motion for summary judgement on the copyright infringement issue, ruling that the Sequence is a collection of facts and ideas that is not entitled to copyright protection.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The Sequence Is an Unprotectible Idea.

Copyright excludes protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”  17 U.S.C. §102(b).  Thus, “every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.” (Opinion pdf page 8).  This is known as the idea/expression dichotomy.  The expression of the idea is protected, but the idea is not protected.

The idea/expression dichotomy strikes a definitional balance between the First Amendment and the Copyright Act by permitting free communication of facts while still protecting an author’s expression.

(Opinion pdf page 8).

The validity of Choudhury’s copyright was not in question, but the scope was.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that Choudhury’s copyright protection for his book did not extend to the Sequence itself.

That the Sequence may produce spiritual and psychological benefits makes it no less an idea, system, or process and no more amenable to copyright protection. Choudhury’s personal declaration explains that the Sequence offers ‘spiritual benefits’ to his students and ‘leads to a general sense of peace and well-being that is undoubtedly of benefit to all of us.’  Like the meditation exercises designed to achieve greater consciousness in Braun, the Sequence sets forth a method to attain identifiable, if spiritual and psychological, results: a sense of well-being and boundless energy. As such, it falls within the Copyright Act’s definition of an idea, process, or system excluded from copyright protection.

(Opinion pdf page 14).

Choudhury argued that the Sequence’s posture arrangement is particularly beautiful and graceful.  The Ninth Circuit noted that “beauty is not a basis for copyright protection.” (Opinion pdf page 14).

The beauty of the process does not permit one who describes it to gain, through copyright, the monopolistic power to exclude all others from practicing it. This is true even where, as here, the process was conceived with at least some aesthetic considerations in mind. Just as some steps in a recipe may reflect no more than the author’s belief that a particular ingredient is beautiful or that a particular cooking technique is impressive to watch and empowering to practice, some elements in Choudhury’s Sequence may reflect his aesthetic preferences. Yet just like the recipe, the Sequence remains unprotectible as a process the design of which primarily reflects function, not expression.

(Opinion pdf page 15).

The Sequence Is Not a Copyrightable Compilation.

Choudhury argued that the Sequence qualifies for copyright protection as a compilation because his selection, coordination and arrangement of the 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises create a coherent and expressive composition.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument.

Under the Copyright Act,

a compilation is a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.

§101. 

A compilation must still satisfy the other copyright protection requirements, including the idea/expression dichotomy.

By claiming copyright protection for the Sequence as a compilation, Choudhury misconstrues the scope of copyright protection for compilations. As we have explained, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system; therefore, it is not eligible for copyright protection. That the Sequence may possess many constituent parts does not transform it into a proper subject of copyright protection. Virtually any process or system could be dissected in a similar fashion. The watchmaking treatise’s author could not claim a copyright in the process of making a watch, however, by breaking down the process into multiple steps and labeling it a ‘compilation.’ Recipes further illustrate the point: a cake recipe could be viewed as a ‘compilation’ of carefully arranged and selected steps-which may, of course, reflect the personal preferences and tastes of the recipe’s author-yet the recipe would remain, in most instances, a process that is not eligible for copyright protection. Likewise, Choudhury cannot obtain copyright protection for the Sequence as a compilation by separately identifying the poses and breathing exercises it contains.

(Opinion pdf pages 17 – 18).

That Choudhury could have used any number of other yoga poses in his Sequence to obtain the same result does not matter.

The possibility of attaining a particular end through multiple different methods does not render the uncopyrightable a proper subject of copyright. Though it may be one of many possible yoga sequences capable of attaining similar results, the Sequence is nevertheless a process and is therefore ineligible for copyright protection.

(Opinion pdf page 19).

The Sequence Is Not a Copyrightable Choreographic Work.

The 1976 Copyright Act protects pantomimes and choreographic works, which were not previously protected.

The parties debated the meaning of “choreographic work.”  The Ninth Circuit found it unnecessary to determine what a choreographic work is.  Again, any copyrighted work must still satisfy the other copyright protection requirements, including the idea/expression dichotomy.

The Sequence is not copyrightable as a choreographic work for the same reason that it is not copyrightable as a compilation: it is an idea, process, or system to which copyright protection may in no case extend.  We recognize that the Sequence may involve static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships. (Copyright Office definition.) So too would a method to churn butter or drill for oil. That is no accident: successions of bodily movement often serve basic functional purposes. Such movements do not become copyrightable as choreographic works when they are part and parcel of a process. Even if the Sequence could fit within some colloquial definitions of dance or choreography, it remains a process ineligible for copyright protection.

(Opinion pdf page 22).

This case is Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolution Yoga, LLC, No. 13-55763, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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