Court finds Bikram yoga not entitled to copyright protection

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The popular style of Bikram yoga is not entitled to copyright protection, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an opinion handed out Thursday. 

The ruling on the unusual subject matter hinged on the three-judge panel's conclusion that the series of poses and stretches is a system designed to create wellbeing, but not the "expression of an idea" that is entitled to copyright protection. 

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"Recognizing this vital distinction between ideas and expression, courts have routinely held that the copyright for a work describing how to perform a process does not extend to the process itself," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in the opinion

The copyright dispute involved the yoga techniques outlined in a 1979 book by Bikram Choudhury. The book lays out the yoga process he developed that includes 26 poses and two breathing exercises that are meant to be done in a hot room. 

In 2011, Choudhury charged two former students with copyright infringement after they opened their own studio, Evolation Yoga, which practiced a form of "hot yoga" that was nearly identical to the style Choudhury developed. 

The court on Thursday pointed back to previous case law that found that while the descriptions of art in a book could be granted copyright protection, that does not automatically give protection to the art itself. 

"The [yoga] Sequence is not copyrightable as a choreographic work for the same reason that it is not copyrightable as a compilation: it is an idea, process, or system to which copyright protection may '[i]n no case' extend," the court ruled. 

The court found that if the "healing methodology" is entitled to any intellectual property rights in U.S. law, it would be in the form of a patent. But the court declined to opine on whether yoga sequences would actually be eligible for a patent, because that was not at issue in the case. 

This is the second appeals court case on copyright in the past few months that has caught attention because of its unusual subject matter. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in late August that the recipe for a chicken sandwich was not protected under copyright.