Appeals Court: No You Can't Copyright Yoga

from the what's-that-got-to-do-with-software dept

We first wrote about this issue more than a decade ago, but there’s been a ridiculous attempt by some yoga instructors to use intellectual property to lock up certain yoga poses. While most of the focus has been on copyright, other attempts have used other forms of intellectual property as well. But the most watched legal dispute was the one brought by Bikram Yoga and Bikram Choudhury against Evolution Yoga… and the 9th Circuit appeals court has now made it abundantly clear: you can’t copyright yoga.

Though Choudhury emphasizes the aesthetic attributes of the Sequence?s ?graceful flow,? at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. 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. Because the Sequence is an unprotectible idea, it is also ineligible for copyright protection as a ?compilation? or ?choreographic work.?

In other words, the idea/expression dichotomy actually matters. And it matters in important ways:

Following Baker, and 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.

Um… that seems rather important in that question over the question on whether or not APIs are covered by copyright. Since an API is just describing how to perform a process, it does not mean the process itself is covered by copyright.

Bikram tried to argue that copyright should be allowed for his poses because they are beautiful, but as the court points out, that’s got nothing to do with anything:

Choudhury contends that the Sequence?s arrangement of postures is ?particularly beautiful and graceful.? But beauty is not a basis for copyright protection. The performance of many ideas, systems, or processes may be beautiful: a surgeon?s intricate movements, a book-keeper?s careful notations, or a baker?s kneading might each possess a certain grace for at least some viewers. Indeed, from Vermeer?s milkmaid to Lewis Hine?s power house mechanic, the individual engrossed in a process has long attracted artistic attention. 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. This is true even where, as here, the process was conceived with at least some aesthetic considerations in mind. Just as some steps in a recipe may reflect no more than the author?s belief that a particular ingredient is beautiful or that a particular cooking technique is impressive to watch and empowering to practice, some elements in Choudhury?s Sequence may reflect his aesthetic preferences. Yet just like the recipe, the Sequence remains unprotectible as a process the design of which primarily reflects function, not expression.

Again, this seems to suggest (yet again) how wrong the CAFC got the decision over APIs.

Separately, the court rejects Bikram’s attempt to claim that his yoga sequence is a form of choreography which is (somewhat ridiculously) copyrightable.

The 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.

This also offers the court an opportunity to explain how important the idea/expression dichotomy is, and the problems that arise when courts (like CAFC) get it totally wrong.

Our day-to-day lives consist of many routinized physical movements, from brushing one?s teeth to pushing a lawnmower to shaking a Polaroid picture, that could be (and, in two of the preceding examples, have been) characterized as forms of dance. Without a proper understanding of the idea/expression dichotomy, one might obtain monopoly rights over these functional physical sequences by describing them in a tangible medium of expression and labeling them choreographic works. The idea/expression dichotomy thus ensures that expansive interpretations of the categories enumerated as proper subjects of copyright will, ?[i]n no case,? extend copyright protection beyond its constitutional limits.

It’s good to see the court get this right and to make it clear that there is no copyright in yoga poses. But it also highlights just how bad (and wrong) the decision in the Oracle v. Google case was by CAFC.

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Companies: bikram yoga, evolution yoga

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Comments on “Appeals Court: No You Can't Copyright Yoga”

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17 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

>Doesn’t trying to copyright yoga defeat the entire original point of yoga?

Yes, copyrighting it is extremely silly. This is obviously a trademark: this particular sequence of moves is intended to identify the brainwashing technique of this particular practitioner, and (so long as suitable reincarnations are arranged) can be controlled forever.

Winterfell (profile) says:

Re: Yoga vs Music

A better analogy would be that performing yoga is like singing warm up scales/exercises. The scales themselves are not covered copyright but if you record him singing the scales the specific recording would be covered by copyright. I have no problem with someone claiming a copyright over the specific video or audio but there is no way they should be able to claim the scales or process of singing under copyright.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Yoga vs Music

It seems to me that performing yoga is similar in principle to performing music. Yet, copyright applies to performing music but not yoga?

One of Richard Feynman’s famous quotes (about quantum mechanics) goes like, “Yes, I agree, it makes no sense, but this is how it appears to work.”

Hundreds of years ago, politicians invented this artificial thing that could be written into law and used to make money and constrain others’ actions by lawyers who spend decades learning its machinations, yet it carries on today into the 21st Century. Why? So the lawyers’ current employers could get out of the stagecoach robbing and snakeoil sales businesses maybe (just my theory)? It’s bizarre that we allow this to go on, apparently only to enrich a small portion of the legal profession and their clients, to the detriment of everyone else involved in any way.

Eli the Bearded says:

the sound of deflating balls

Two quotes from Choudhury that deserve more attention.

“When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do. When in America, copyright and trademark.”
— Bikram Choudhury

“Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.”
— Bikram Choudhury explaining why he would sue other people practicing his copyrighted yoga routines

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