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Yoga For All: Can a Sequence of Exercises be Copyrighted?

Published onFeb 04, 2013
Yoga For All: Can a Sequence of Exercises be Copyrighted?

“Yoga should be for everyone.” That’s what Yoga to the People’s founder, Greg Gumucio, believes and the federal courts seem to agree with him. As a student of Bikram Choudhury, Gumucio, the millionaire fonder of Bikram Yoga, regularly practiced a 26-pose hot yoga sequence that Choudhury had arranged. Hot yoga consists of doing yoga in a room heated to 105°. The poses themselves were all thousands of years old, yet Choudhury had his particular sequence copyrighted, arguing that the arrangement was his own intellectual property.

Bikram hot yoga classes cost approximately $25 per class and anyone wishing to open an Bikram Yoga studio must have Choudhury’s permission and take a $7,000 yoga course with him. In 2006, Gumucio left Bikram Yoga to open his own affordable hot yoga studio, Yoga to the People. Gumucio charges only $8 per hot yoga class and offers room temperature yoga classes charging only optional donations. Gumucio incorporated the same 26-pose sequence he practiced at Bikram Yoga, and Choudhury sued for copyright infringement. So is a yoga sequence a copyrightable expression of intellectual property? The Federal Circuit thinks not.

A fundamental principle of copyright law is that you cannot gain intellectual property rights in an idea, but you can copyright the fixed expression of that idea. Additionally, the Federal Copyright Act specifically states that compilations are copyrightable material. The definition section found in 17 U.S.C. 101 defines “compilation” as: “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.” The fact that the poses used in the Bikram yoga sequence have existed for thousands of years does not make the sequence uncopyrightable.

Choudhury claims his yoga pose sequence is an original work as a whole and deserving of copyright protection, but the Copyright Office disagrees. According to the Copyright Office, “a selection, coordination, or arrangement of functional physical movements such as sports movements, exercises, and other ordinary motor activities alone” is insufficient to warrant copyright protection. In addition, if a selection, coordination, or arrangement of exercise movements, such as a compilation of yoga poses, is said to improve one’s physical or mental condition, then it may be precluded from registration as being a functional system. A film, picture, or fixed description of an exercise routine may be copyrightable, but the copyright would not extend to the actual movements themselves.

On December 14, 2012, a federal court denied Choudhury’s request for copyright enforcement and ruled that a sequence of yoga poses is not subject to copyright protection; thus, its creator cannot maintain any infringement claims against people who teach the poses.

Despite the court’s ruling which would allow Yoga to the People to continue using the Bikram sequence, Gumucio says he will discontinue using the Bikram sequence and begin teaching a new sequence of poses called “fire” that will incorporate many of the Bikram poses but add some different poses as well. On February 15, 2013 Yoga to the People will unveil its new yoga sequence to all.

* Rebeca Echevarria is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, International Relations, and Biomedical Ethics from Mount Holyoke College. Upon graduation in May 2014, Miss Echevarria intends to practice Intellectual Property and Biotechnology law.

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