Is it possible to copyright yoga poses?

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Yoga “guru” Bikram Choudhury has been in the news recently for matters wholly unrelated to copyright. Surprisingly perhaps, Choudhury has also helped to shine a light on a core cornerstone of copyright law, namely the distinction between an idea and its expression.

Choudhury, the self-styled creator of “Bikram Yoga” (or “hot yoga”), which has attracted legions of followers across the world, has not been afraid to threaten to sue competitors whom he considers to be copying his yoga poses. Matters came to a head in the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in California last October when the court ruled on a copyright infringement claim that Choudhury had brought against the founders of Evolution Yoga LLC, which operated “hot yoga” studios across the United States.  In his submissions, Choudhury argued that the very essence of Bikram Yoga demanded precise moves, performed in the same sequence, to the same commands, in a room heated at precisely 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  He maintained that Evolution Yoga had copied his sequence of moves without his consent.

The Ninth Circuit was unimpressed and Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, in giving judgment for the defendants, made an important point about the nature of copyright, applicable on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the States: “this question implicates a fundamental principle underlying constitutional and statutory copyright protection – the idea/expression dichotomy. Because copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves, the Bikram Yoga sequence is not a proper subject of copyright protection.”

Warming to her theme, the judge continued: “our day-to-day lives consist of many routinised physical movements, from brushing one’s teeth to pushing a lawnmower to shaking a Polaroid picture, that could be … characterised as forms of dance. Without a proper understanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, one might obtain monopoly rights over these functional physical sequences by describing them in a tangible medium of expression and labelling them choreographic works.”

Overlooking the surprise inclusion of shaking Polaroid pictures in the judge’s cast of routinised physical movements that may be characterised as a form of dance, this is a neat illustration of a fundamental principle of copyright – that it does not exist in an idea, only the expression of an idea.

The case is good news for yoga instructors, obviously, who need no longer fear a claim for copyright infringement for presenting moves (in the perhaps unlikely event that they feared such a claim in the first place!)