Breaking down whether yoga can be copyrighted

We’ve been following the Bikram — Yoga to the People lawsuit, for two reasons: 1. It seems a fairly central issue to the business of yoga, whether one person can copyright a set of poses as Bikram has done (or, perhaps, tried to do). 2. Bikram’s among the most entertaining figures in yoga.

Our past posts on this are all here. Probably the key post is here.

What it all boiled down to is whether Yoga to the People’s Greg Gumucio — a former right-hand man to Bikram — can use the sequence of 26 yoga poses, set in a hot situation, that is “Bikram Yoga.” (By extension, also, whether others can do the same.) The latest policy statement from the U.S. Copyright Office would seem to suggest he could, and that Bikram doesn’t have as firm a grasp on his form of yoga as he’d like. Today, Forbes broke things down a bit more:

Categories of Copyrightable Subject Matter

Works of authorship that can be protected by U.S. copyright law are currently limited to the following eight established categories:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works.

The categories are non-exclusive, but only the U.S. Congress may create new categories. Congress did not delegate that authority to the courts or the Copyright Office.

Although a compilation may be based on the selection, coordination or arrangement of uncopyrightable elements (such as facts or data), must those elements relate to the foregoing categories of authorship or could they relate to other categories? In other words, could the selection, coordination or arrangement of uncopyrightable subject matter constitute a protectable compilation? After a lengthy analysis, the Copyright Office concludes that to be copyrightable, a compilation must relate to one of the eight established categories. So a collection of 100 rocks would not be protected by copyright since rocks are not protectable subject matter. However, a list of the names of an author’s 100 favorite rocks would be a protectable compilation since such a list may be considered a literary work.

Forbes then explains that according to the Copyright Office a set of yoga poses or a brief set of dance moves wouldn’t fall under any of those eight categories, including the choreographic one, because “a choreographic work must be a “composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive whole” and “[s]imple dance routines do not represent enough original choreographic authorship to be copyrightable.””

That sounds to me like there’s a distinction being made between yoga (specifically in this case) and more creatively focused works, i.e. a novel, movie or piece of art. (Is there an argument to be made to the contrary?)

I believe that Bikram has compared his yoga sequence to a song, with each pose like a note strung together into an uniquely arranged whole. Where we’ve always had trouble with that comparison is that a yoga pose seems more like a whole song to us — already the sum of many parts, or notes. And so the set of 26 poses in Bikram’s sequence becomes more akin to his stringing together other people’s songs into a musical.

And then Bikram becomes like “Mamma Mia,” a collection of Abba songs. But in that case, whoever holds the copyright to Abba’s songs would have had to give the OK (or been involved, however the creation of that musical originally worked.) No one can get the OK from whoever “invented” Warrior Pose to use it.

Where we are, then, seems to be that past rulings in Bikram’s favor that a yoga sequence could be copyrighted were wrong. Just what that opens up will probably involve another round of court cases, of course. We are in America, after all.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Breaking down whether yoga can be copyrighted”

  1. Bikram only started comparing “his” sequence to a song early in the ‘noughties’ when a lawyer decided that this was the strategy that they would ‘try on’. The copyright claim has been ”thin’ and tenuous since it was lodged. The current complaints out there IMO are all a sham, and are a result of the unscrupulous and unsubstantiated claims that BIkram and his legal team make.

    Bikram does not own the series – he didn’t even design it. The proof of that is in his own words and I won’t quote them here.

    The only reason this copyright issue will be played out in court is because the legal system supports people lodging spurious and vexatious claims without any accountability on the part of the ‘plaintiff’. His financial power is finally being met by someone who won’t back down. That is great for all yogis. Thank goodness for Greg and Yoga To The People. Thank you Greg for sticking to your principles and for not being bullied. Yoga belongs to everybody (quite apart from the legal case of copyright). Healthy exercise cannot be copyright.

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