It's clear that dances composed by choreographers can be subject to copyright as creative works, just like paintings or photographs. It's also clear that no matter how creative a football player's evasive "spin move" can be, neither he nor his team can copyright it so as to prevent others from using it without paying royalties. What about a series of yoga poses? Where does that fit into the world of copyright? Three cases now pending in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California involve that question, and although the issue remains very much in dispute, the U.S. Copyright Office has taken the view that yoga exercises are more like athletic activities or health regimens, which cannot be copyrighted, and less like dance routines, which can be.
In the lawsuits, Bikram's Yoga College of India, based in California, and its founder, Bikram Choudhury, have sued three yoga providers for copyright and trademark infringement, contending that they have unlawfully used the specific movements and poses of Choudhury's brand of yoga, known as Bikram Yoga. Bikram Yoga, performed for precisely 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, has become quite popular in recent decades. Bikram Yoga includes 26 poses, two breathing exercises, and a carefully scripted dialogue.
Greg Gumucio is a defendant in one of the cases, along with the company he founded, New York City-based Yoga to the People. Gumucio is a former student of Choudhury. According to the complaint in that case, Choudhury "created an original work of authorship consisting of a series of instructions and commands that accompany, and correspond to, each poster of Bikram Yoga." This "original work is recited in a precise manner," according to the complaint, and the sequence of poses received protection from the U.S. Copyright Office on several occasions. Gumucio and the other yoga studio owners, Choudhury said, had infringed upon the copyrights.
Gumucio and his company replied that "Choudhury has no intellectual property rights in any method or posture," and that "the alleged 'Bikram methods' are utilitarian systems, incapable of copyright or trademark protection." Further, Gumucio replied, "there are no 'Bikram postures,' and each and every one of the yoga postures (or 'poses' or 'asanas') used in Bikram Yoga classes was developed and recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, and are in the public domain."
The defendants received very recent support from the Copyright Office. On December 9, 2011, Laura Lee Fischer, Acting Chief of the Performing Arts Division of the Copyright Office, wrote an email stating that "the Registration Program of the Copyright Office reviewed the legislative history relating to section 102(a) of the copyright law, and in conjunction with senior management, determined that exercises, including yoga exercises, do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography. Thus, we will not register such exercises (including yoga movements), whether described as exercises or as selections and ordering of movements."
This view represented an about-face from the office's previous position, which was that even if several yoga poses or exercises were in the public domain, the order in which they were to be executed could be copyrighted. Although the office's position is not binding on the U.S. District Court, it appears more likely now that yoga practitioners will be able to go ahead with their routines without fearing a copyright lawsuit.