Bikram Yoga Poses and Its Series of 26 Yoga Poses are Not Copyrightable Expressions Under Ninth Circuit Decision

The Ninth Circuit held in Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC that a particular series of 26 poses of “hot yoga” practices is not copyrightable in light of Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.  

Bikram Choudhury, a well-known yoga practitioner, wrote Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class in 1978 that focused on a series of 26 yoga postures done in a particular sequence, named the “Bikram Yoga System” that was to be done with two breathing exercises, a rote dialogue delivered by a yoga instructor, and in a 105° Fahrenheit environment.

He created yoga franchises to train new yoga teachers, including Mark Drost and Zefea Samson who subsequently started Evolation Yoga that had an almost identical copy of the Bikram yoga program.  In July 2011, Choudhury’s training school brought suit against Drost, Samson, and Evolation, alleging various IP and contractual claims, with only copyright issues at the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit sided with Evolation Yoga and relied on the U.S. Supreme Court case Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879), stating that the sequence of poses is an unprotectable idea.  The court focused on copyright only being accessible as protection over expression rather than functionality, which was what the 26 yoga postures was intended for—increased health benefits.

The Ninth Circuit also considered if the individual poses were copyrightable as compilations of public domain elements or under choreographic works. However, the Ninth Circuit denied both possibilities, focusing on the core limitation of copyright, being that the 26 poses themselves as well as their compilation were functional rather than expressive.

This case is a reminder that the concept of copyright focuses on expression and expressive intent as opposed to functionality.