How Far Can a Yogi Stretch Copyright Protection?

On October 8, 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Bikram Choudhury, creator of Bikram Yoga, tried to stretch copyright law just a little too far. In 1970s, Choudhury developed a sequence of twenty-six yoga poses and two breathing exercises, arranged in a specific order, that he calls the “Sequence.” Choudhury opened his open yoga studio offering 90-minute Bikram Yoga classes, where students practiced the Sequence in a room heated to 105 degrees. Choudhury, the “self-proclaimed Yogi to the stars,” claims to have extended the careers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe.

In 1979, Choudhury published a book, “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, which contained photographs, descriptions, and drawings of the Sequence’s twenty-six poses and breathing exercises. He registered the book with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1979. Choudhury also offered a Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course.

In 2009, two students who completed Choudhury’s Birkram Yoga Teacher Training Course founded Evolution Yoga, offering several types of yoga, including a “hot yoga” class. Evolution acknowledged that its 90-minute hot yoga class included twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises in a room heated to 105 degrees.

On July 1, 2011, Choudhury filed a complaint alleging that Evolution Yoga and its founders infringed his copyrighted works by offering their hot yoga class.

The Ninth Circuit was asked to determine whether the sequence of twenty-six yoga poses and two breathing exercises that Choudhury developed and described in his 1979 book was entitled to copyright protection. The Nine Circuit held that copyright protection could not stretch quite so far.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s finding that the Sequence was an unprotectable idea. Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act of 1979 “expressly excludes protection for 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.” Section 102(a) codifies the “idea/expression dichotomy,” a central principle underlying copyright law that provides that “every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.”

The Copyright Clause and the First Amendment are the two constitutional foundations of the “idea/expression dichotomy.” The United States Supreme Court has held that under the Copyright Clause, “[t]he primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Copyright law therefore “assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.” Thus, the “idea/expression dichotomy” also promotes the goals of the First Amendment by ensuring the free communication of facts while still protecting an author’s expression.”

For example, while an author can copyright a book describing an innovative book-keeping system, the author cannot use copyright law to prevent others from using or implementing the book-keeping system. Copyright only protects the author’s expression of the book-keeping system, not the book-keeping system itself. The Ninth Circuit noted that “courts have routinely held that the copyright for a work describing how to perform a process does not extend to the process itself.” Thus, recipes in a copyrighted cookbook are not protected by copyright because they “merely describe a procedure by which the reader may produce many dishes, and there can be no monopoly in the copyright sense in the ideas for producing certain foodstuffs.”

The “idea/expression dichotomy” also helps steer individuals toward the patent system, where they must satisfy the more stringent standards imposed by patent law before they can secure a monopoly over a system, process or method.

The case serves as an important reminder that it is essential to understand which type of intellectual property applies to your work. Moreover, the case emphasizes that courts should be reluctant to permit parties to bend copyright law to protect functional ideas and limit competition.

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