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 Yoga and Copyright

Yoga and Copyright – Stretching Boundaries

February 15, 2011

Yoga is an increasingly popular form of exercise involving the performing of a series of postures for health benefits. These postures named asanas originate thousands of years ago from India. But, as within religion, different schools evolve and branch out often attributed to the life’s work of a particular individual. Bikram Choudry who opened his first American yoga studio in Beverly Hills in the 1970s developed a ‘hot version’ of yoga practice. He developed a sequence of 26 postures to be performed in heated rooms. His school of yoga has met with particular success with over 600 establishments in the USA alone.

Interestingly he is the first to have registered copyrights for the postures (see third post) and enforces these creative works unrelentingly. The aim being to standardise his workout in his licensed schools and prevent any brand dilution.   In June 2002 he sued one of his previous students as the latter had been using music in classes and not heating the room to the prescribed temperature.  Amongst some of the claims against the student was breach of licence as a franchisee, copyright and trade mark infringement. This was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

However it is somewhat debatable to what extent a sequence of pre-existing postures may attract copyright. Registering copyright in the US does not necessarily mean it is validated; the act of registration simply ‘establishes a public record of a copyright claim’.

A few years later a collective of yoga practitioners, named the Open Source Yoga Unity, brought an action against Bikram challenging the validity of his copyright in the sequence of postures. Both parties petitioned the court for summary judgment, a legal procedure to request the Court to review the substance of the issues and decide whether either party has a case, but the Court denied both motions. The case was later settled. The judge, when delivering his order on summary judgement, commented in principal on the validity of copyright in a sequence of postures and alluded to the possibility that a compilation of yoga asanas can be ‘protected under the copyright laws in the same manner as other compilations’ (see page 3). The level of protection would be deemed to be ‘thin’ for this type of copyright involving ‘exact or near-exact duplications of his [Bikram’s] yoga sequence’ (page 4).

Due to the settlement, no court has yet had to decide on the actual validity of Bikram’s copyright claims.

Some opined that Bikram yoga is a ‘system’ and, as a result under US law, would not benefit from copyright protection. (page 10 of extract)

The same author also argued had Bikram described his sequence as an ‘expressive dance and accentuated its aesthetic value’ then he could have been accorded maximum copyright protection. This is on the basis that the ‘standard of protection for dance was quite broad’ (page 17).

Rather Bikram has lauded the medical benefits arising from application of the system in its entirety, which makes one consider whether patent registration may be more relevant. This is because the system may be described as a functional process.

 What is of interest here is that the Indian government, reacting to the perceived threat of privatising Indian culture, have been collating all known asanas into a ‘prior art’ database to prevent the patenting of yoga – this database is due to be published over the next couple of months. However this would still not preclude yogi entrepreneurs from creating original compilations of the forms and potentially attracting copyright protection.

Even with uncertain copyright claims, Bikram Chowdury has managed to build a strong global brand. Being the first to franchise yoga he opens possibilities for other health practices to take inspiration. Will we see the next tai chi or shiatsu offshoot relying on the copyright of their particular system to build their business?

Indeed, part of his success may been down to him ‘policing his rights aggresively’ (Judge Hamilton see page 7 ). In particular this approach has benefitted his trademark by preventing it from becoming generic over time. In contrast PILATES, another form of restorative exercise, became unregistrable in the US as a trade mark due to it signifying a type of activity rather than denoting the origin of the services, namely the founder Joseph Pilates. This brings into sharp focus the importance of adopting a proactive stance to trade mark protection.