Sequence of Yoga Exercises Not Copyrightable

Sequence of Yoga Exercises Not Copyrightable

by Jerry Glover
December 21, 2012

A federal district court in California has issued a ruling that seems to buttress the impression that copyright law is a very esoteric area of the law. Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Goya LLC(C.D. Cal. December 14, 2012).

Beginning in 1971, Bikram Choudbury developed Bikram Yoga as a yoga system that includes 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises always performed in the same order. Its creator claimed the system helped to “avoid, correct, cure, heal and alleviate the symptoms of a variety of diseases and health issues.”   Id. at 2. Choudbury wrote several books describing and depicting the sequence of exercise and received a copyright registration for one of the books.   The defendants were former students of Choudbury and were later authorized to teach the system. The defendants later formed the defendant company and began offering classes in the Bikram system without authorization. Bikram’s company sued claiming copyright infringement of the system of yoga poses and exercises. The company did not allege that defendants had violated the copyright in the book. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the copyright infringement issue claiming that the sequence of exercises was not copyrightable.

The defendant did not challenge the copyright plaintiff held in the book. It did argue that the copyright registration held by the plaintiff did not cover “facts and ideas”, i.e., the exercises and their sequence. The defendant also noted that the book’s copyright is for a book that includes the sequence of exercises but not the sequence itself.

The court noted that Section 102(a) of the U.S. Copyright Act limits those things which may be copyrighted: (1) literary works; (2) musical works; (3) dramatic works; (r4) pantomimes and choreographic works; (5) pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; (6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works; (7) sound recordings and (8) architectural works. 17 U.S.C. Sec. 102(a). None of these categories, the court noted, include a sequence of exercises. The court stated that a sequence of exercises is covered by another section of the Copyright Act: Section 102(b). But that section states that copyright does not extend to “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. Sec. 102(b).

As proof of the old saw that “timing is everything,” the court pointed to a clarification from the U.S. Copyright Office this year that noted that “a compilation of yoga possess may be precluded from registration as a functional system or process in cases where the particular movements and the order in which they are to be performed are said to result in improvements in one’s health or physical or mental condition.” 17 Fed. Reg. 37605, 37607 (June 22, 2012). The court concluded that the sequence of yoga exercises was a “system or process” that is not copyrightable.

The plaintiff argued that the exercise sequence was copyrightable as a pantomime or choreographic work since the exercises consist of “significant gestures without speech.” Bikram’s Yoga College of India, at 6 quoting 1 Nimmer on Copyright Sec. 207(A) at 2-67. However, the court, again quoting the Copyright Office’s recent clarification, noted that choreographic works do not include social dance steps and simple routines and that “a mere compilation of physical movements does not rise to the level of choreographic authorship unless it contains sufficient attributes of a work of choreography.” Id. quoting 77 Fed. Reg. 37605, 37607. The district court added that choreographic works must be recorded in some tangible medium of expression before copyright protection attaches, something the plaintiff had not done. The court concluded that the sequence of exercises did not fall within the definition of a choreographic work because of the simplicity of that sequence and because the sequence is not a dramatic performance.

The plaintiff argued that the sequence of exercises as found in the book was a copyrightable compilation. The court noted, however, that the copyrightable result of compiling a sequence of exercises into a book “would not extend to the selection, coordination or arrangement of the exercises themselves that are depicted in the [book].” Id. at 7. So that even if the manner of arrangement the plaintiff created for the sequence of exercises was unique, the copyright does not extend to the sequence of those exercises “because individual yoga poses are not copyrightable subject matter.” Id. at 8.

So the plaintiff’s book explaining the sequence of exercises and how to perform them might be copyrightable because of the original expression used as the basis for that explanation, but the subject of the explanation—the sequence of exercises—were merely facts or ideas and not separately copyrightable. Can’t get much more esoteric than that.

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