Stretching to its Limits: Can You Protect Yoga Poses through Copyright?

Felines can often demonstrate great feats of stretchiness and overall flexibility, which can only be attributed to hard work at all-important cat yoga sessions. Whether you partake in yoga or any similar types of new age forms of exercise (in popularity, less so in origin), you cannot have been unaware of their growing popularity, especially among us Millennials. The classes aim to train the body and mind, each style of yoga doing so through different means and various poses. With this variety of styles, could one protect yoga poses through copyright?
Merpel showing off the 'Downward Cat' pose

The US Court of Appeals aimed to answer this question in the case of Bikram Yoga College of India v. Evolution Yoga, LLC, 2015 WL 5845415 (accessible here), which dealt with Bikram yoga; a style of yoga developed and popularized by Bikram Choudhury in the latter decades of the 20th century. Bikram yoga consists of a sequence of 26 different 'asanas' (i.e. poses) and two breathing exercises, conducted in a hot room through a series of instructions. Mr. Choudhury released a book titled "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class" in 1979, registering it, and later, a 'compilation of exercises' with the US Copyright Office. In the late 1990s, Mr. Choudhury introduced the "Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course", allowing for all would-be 'yogis' to learn his methods and to teach them at classes. In the early 2000s, Mark Frost and Zefea Samson participated in the course, and subsequently founded Evolution Yoga, where they taught, among other classes, "hot yoga", which was similar to Bikram yoga. Mr. Choudhury promptly took the pair to court, alleging the infringement of his copyright protected works in the aforementioned book in their yoga classes.

The heart of the case lie in whether the poses, and the sequence of them, could be protected under US copyright. This includes whether the asansas and breathing exercises would be classed as mere ideas, or the expression of specific ideas, falling within or outside of copyright protection. Following precedent, such as Palmer v Braun (denying copyright protection for meditation exercises), the Court of Appeals saw that what Mr. Choudhury sought to protect was the idea of yoga exercises, and not a tangible, proper form of expression falling within its remit of protection. Even though he contended that the 'beauty' and 'grace' within the sequence should allow for its protection, the Court dismissed this, as " is not a basis for copyright protection. The performance of many ideas, systems, or processes may be beautiful... But 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". Allowing for the protection of the sequence of poses and breathing exercises would monopolize the idea of it, preventing others from disseminating them or using them as they please.

The second argument put forth was 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. Mr. Choudhury argument does, however, hinge on copyright protection under section 102, and should the material not qualify as a protectable work, it certainly will not do so under section 103. As was decided some time ago in Feist Publications, Inc. v Rural Telephone Service Co., compilations can be protected even if they only contain ideas if "...[a] factual compilation is eligible for copyright if it features an original selection or arrangement of facts, but the copyright is limited to the particular selection or arrangement". The Court of Appeals rejected his argument, as even though a non-copyright protected work may consist of several constituent parts, does not mean it is afforded protection through the compilation of those specific parts. Even if Mr. Choudhury selection and arrangement of the sequence has an underlying objective and intention, it still remains a process, excluded under section 103.

Finally, the last argument was that the sequence is a protectable choreographic work under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(4). As above, the Court of Appeals rejected this, since the protection under section 102 still requires for the underlying work to be protectable; something the Court firmly denied earlier in the judgment. The addition of the new sub-section to section 102 allowed for the inclusion of choreographic works, but it still will not extend to mere ideas. In the end the Court of Appeals rejected all of the arguments, not allowing for the protection of yoga poses through copyright.

The case was a straightforward application of the law, but this Kat enjoyed the mental exercise in its use for something more unconventional. Even though Mr. Choudhury lost his case, it still shows just how (potentially) malleable copyright is, especially in the US, and the importance of choice of relevant IP protection.
Stretching to its Limits: Can You Protect Yoga Poses through Copyright? Stretching to its Limits: Can You Protect Yoga Poses through Copyright? Reviewed by Jani Ihalainen on Friday, November 06, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. I am unfamiliar with the underlying case.

    Was the notion that any/all of this is meant to have utility (otherwise, why do it?), and the fact that copyright expressly is not meant to protect utility, put forth?

    In other words, does not the lack of expressionism (for which copyright protection would inure aside from any utility decide the case?

  2. 'but this Kat enjoyed the mental exercise in its use'

    Like this Kat, I enjoy mental exercise but don't seem to get around to physical exercise, Yoga or otherwise. Unfortunately, it shows...

  3. The Pigs,

    The Court did not speak of utility, per say, but one could draw a conclusion from the case that utility, in itself, is not a protected subject matter. Even though the expression (whether so or not under copyright) has benefits or utility, it still would not necessarily be protected by copyright. The lack of expression, in a sense, was what decided the case, since what was sought to be protected was not the expression (i.e. the book or other tangible forms of expression), but the idea underlying that expression.

  4. Thank you Jani.

    I think that I was reaching for something a little more.

    Let's say for argument's sake that a book of the yoga stretch in question was at issue (the expression made manifest).

    I would still think that the better (perhaps now only) rational to decide the case would be the utility position.

    The form (the expressed form) is still only something that intends "use."

    I suppose that some (very limited) protection would be available, perhaps the choice of clothes the model in the picture was wearing....


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