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Courthouse News Service
Thursday, October 08, 2015
By KATHERINE PROCTOR
PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - A popular yoga master's sequence of poses and breathing exercises is not entitled to copyright protection, the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday.
Bikram Choudhury - who became a central yoga figure in Beverly Hills in the 1970s, and whose website declares him "the most respected living yoga guru in the world" - developed and popularized his sequence through his own studio, where he began offering "Bikram Yoga" classes.
Choudhury further marketed the sequence by publishing the 1979 book "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class," and he has publicly stated that his sequence extended the careers of professional athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe, according to the circuit's 23-page opinion.
In July 2011, Choudhury sued Evolation Yoga for copyright infringement as to the sequence, but a federal judge found that the sequence was not entitled to copyright protection. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the ruling.
Writing for the panel, Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw said that "at bottom, the sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health," and "copyright protects only the expression of this idea - the words and pictures used to describe the sequence - and not the idea of the sequence itself."
Wardlaw questioned whether "Choudhury's copyright protection for his 1979 book extends to the sequence itself."
"Under the fundamental tenets of copyright law and consistent with the precedents discussed above, the answer is no," she said.
She added that if the sequence "is entitled to protection at all, that protection is more properly sought through the patent process."
"That the sequence may produce spiritual and psychological benefits makes it no less an idea, system, or process and no more amenable to copyright protection," Wardlaw said.
And as to Choudhury's contention that the sequence's arrangement of postures is "particularly beautiful and graceful," Wardlaw said that "beauty is not a basis for copyright protection."
"From Vermeer's milkmaid to Lewis Hine's power house mechanic, the individual engrossed in a process has long attracted artistic attention," she said.
"But the beauty of the process does not permit one who describes it to gain, through copyright, the monopolistic power to exclude all others from practicing it. The sequence remains unprotectable as a process the design of which primarily reflects function, not expression."
Wardlaw also said that "consumers would have little reason to buy Choudhury's book if Choudhury held a monopoly on the practice of the very activity he sought to popularize."
Choudhury's argument that the sequence is entitled to copyright protection since it is a "compilation" carried little weight with the panel, which Wardlaw said "misconstrues the scope of copyright protection for compilations."
"That the sequence may possess many constituent parts does not transform it into a proper subject of copyright protection," Wardlaw said.
Nor is the sequence a copyrightable "choreographic work," she said, since "successions of bodily movement" do not become copyrightable as such when they are "part and parcel of a process."
Without a proper understanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, she said, one might obtain monopoly rights over physical sequences "from brushing one's teeth to pushing a lawnmower" by "describing them in a tangible medium of expression and labeling them choreographic works."
Evolation attorney Eric Maier with Maier Schoch in Hermosa Beach, California, said, "Evolation is very pleased that the Ninth Circuit has made it clear that yoga belongs to everybody, and no individual owns any particular style or sequence of yoga poses."
Attorneys for Choudhury did not respond to request for comment on Thursday morning.
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