On Friday, the Central District of California held that a series of yoga poses designed to improve health is not copyrightable, dismissing claims of copyright infringement bought by Bikram Choudhury against Evolation Yoga. This ruling followed in the footsteps of the Copyright Office’s recent announcement that it will no longer issue registration certificates for sequences of yoga poses designed to improve health.
The California lawsuit was brought by Bikram Choudhury, the originator of the popular hot yoga style, Bikram Yoga. Bikram Yoga incorporates a series of 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises performed in the same order and manner in a room of 105 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of approximately ninety minutes (the “Bikram Sequence”). According to Choudhury, the Bikram Sequence is designed to correct, alleviate, and/or prevent various diseases and ailments. Defendants are former students of Choudhury who taught the Bikram Sequence—the same 26 poses and two breathing exercises in the same order, manner, and environment—in their own studios, without Choudhury’s permission. Claiming the Bikram Sequence was copyrightable, Choudhury sued for copyright infringement and also brought claims for trademark infringement, false designation of origin, dilution, unfair competition, unfair business practices, breach of contract, inducing breach of contract.
Considering a motion for partial summary judgment on the copyright claim only, the Central District of California firmly held that a series of yoga poses, including the Bikram Sequence, is not copyrightable because (1) a series of yoga poses designed to promote health, like any exercise routine, constitutes a non-copyrightable fact or idea and (2) a series of yoga poses does not fall into the enumerated categories of copyrightable works under 17 U.S.C. § 102, but is, instead, a non-copyrightable system or procedure.
Key to the court’s ruling is its finding, guided by the Copyright Office’s June 2012 announcement, that yoga poses are exercises. Exercises do not fall into the enumerated categories of authorship under 17 U.S.C. § 102 and are not copyrightable. Thus, according to the court, a series of yoga poses, even if the manner in which the poses are arranged is unique, is merely a compilation of non-copyrightable exercises.
The court distinguished the copyrightability of the underlying Bikram Sequence from that of Choudhury’s books and video depicting the Bikram Sequence. The first—the Bikram Sequence itself—is a compilation of non-copyrightable exercises (facts) and, therefore, is not copyrightable. The second—books and videos depicting the Bikram Sequence—are “creative work[s] that compile a series of exercises.” The creative expression contained within the books and videos meets the threshold for copyright, but not the “factual” series of yoga poses.
The court also explained why the Bikram Sequence could not find protection as a choreographic work. The court gave three reasons: (1) “Congress contemplated protection for dramatic works to be something significantly more”, (2) “the preferable forms of pantomimes or choreographic works . . . are ones recorded in the Laban system of notation or as a motion picture of the dance” and (3) the Bikram Sequence “hardly seems to fall within the definition of a pantomime or a choreographic work because of the simplicity of the [Bikram] Sequence and the fact that it is not a dramatic performance.”
Each of these reasons produces more questions than answers, especially when considering the very thin line between a series of yoga poses designed to be taught in yoga studios to students wishing to improve their health and a dance comprised of series of yoga poses set to music (or not) for performance on stage in front of an audience in attendance at a dramatic event. Is one of these copyrightable, but the other not? If so, what’s the difference? The intent of the person who compiled the sequence or the people executing the sequence? Would the court’s opinion have changed if Choudhury had the Bikram Sequence recorded by Labanotation?
What about other forms or exercise that blur the lines between exercise and dance? In a footnote, the court noted that copyright registrations issued for the TAE-BO exercise program may not be valid. This implies that exercise trends derived from dance, such as the ever-infamous jazzercise or the more recently popular Zumba, may not be copyrightable when choreographed for group instruction at a gym but may be copyrightable when choreographed for performance on stage.
For now it is clear that a sequence of yoga poses created for the purpose of improving health is not copyrightable in the Central District of California, but the applicability of the court’s decision to variety of other, seemingly similar situations remains murky.