Are “Hot Yoga” Moves Just Hot or Copyrightable?
Can You Copyright Yoga Moves?
Under federal copyright law, it does not take much originality for a work to merit copyright protection under the liberal standard for such protection. Indeed, the standard is that only a work have been independently created and been the product of minimal creativity.
For years, the founder of Bikram “hot yoga,” Bikram Choudhury, took an overly broad view of what is copyrightable. He did so by suing, and threatening to sue, numerous yoga studios all over the U.S. for teaching the 26 yoga poses and 2 breathing exercises, performed in a heated room, that Choudhury made famous. Many of these lawsuits and threatened lawsuits resulted in cash settlements or royalty deals for Choudhury or put competing studios out of business.
After a multi-year litigation with a particular studio, however, Choudhury met his match. Just last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered whether Choudhury’s claims of copyright protection were valid. In Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. and Bikram Choudhury v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, 803 F.3d 1032 (9th Cir. 2015), the main issue on appeal was whether Choudhury’s 26 moves and 2 breathing exercises, as set forth in Choudhury’s 1979 book, were copyrightable. In reviewing the issue of whether the moves and breathing exercises were copyrightable, the district court granted the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the “sequence” of the moves and exercises and held the “sequence” was subject to copyright protection. Choudhury appealed.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals evaluated whether the “sequence” was a form of protectable “expression” or whether the moves were only “ideas” not subject to protection. Under copyright law, the law only protects the expression of ideas but not the ideas themselves; this concept is called the “merger doctrine.” In evaluating the sequence under the merger doctrine, the Court focused on how Choudhury described the sequence as both a “system” and a “method.” Choudhury’s description emphasized that the sequence was more of an idea than an expression because systems and methods are subject to copyright protection.
The Court further considered Choudhury’s arguments that the sequence was a protectable “compilation” or “choreography.” The Court, however, also rejected these arguments because systems and methods also cannot be a protected compilation or choreography.
In sum, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of partial summary judgment in the defendant’s favor and held that the “sequence” of moves and exercises was not copyrightable. Practically speaking, the Court’s ruling lifted a looming burden on yoga studios all over country that by teaching “hot yoga” poses, they were subject to expensive litigation by Choudhury.