The Bikram yoga copyright controversy arguably ranks as one of the most (if not the most) interesting copyright dispute of this century thus far. While most copyright cases that garner attention these days focus on the cutting-edge (see Aereo, and last decade Napster), the Bikram controversy focuses on the ancient. Throw in a larger-than-life personality (Bikram Choudhury), and you have the makings for legal fireworks.
I call it a “controversy” not only because the idea of claiming copyright protection in a yoga asana sequence is controversial, but also because the issue has survived unresolved for more than a decade. Shortly after embarking on my own Bikram yoga practice in sweaty SF yoga studios in 2003, I had the honor of working on the first incarnation of the controversy in Open Source Yoga Unity v Bikram Choudhury, 2005 WL 756558 (N.D.Cal. 2005) as a consulting attorney while obtaining my IP LLM. Simultaneously I wrote a law review article (I was a busy guy back then) in the University of San Francisco Fall 2005 IP Bulletin entitled “The OSYU v. Bikram Choudhury Copyright Case: Analytical Approaches to Fleshing Out a Paper Tiger.” That case ended in a settled legal stalemate with none of the key issues decided, particularly validity of Bikram’s claimed compilation copyright. I almost had another bite at the apple in 2008 in another case (Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Eric Levine et al), but that one disappeared almost as soon as it appeared.
So let’s just say I was ecstatic to come across Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, 2012 WL 6548505 (C.D. Cal. 2012), and to find a court that finally said what most people feel instinctively: that a yoga sequence is not copyrightable subject matter. True to tenacious form, Bikram appealed that ruling, and the 9th Circuit currently holds the keys to the future of yoga (and physical exercise routine) copyright protection.
As the time for argument in earnest draws closer (although as of this writing no date for oral argument has been set), I will be blogging about where this controversy has been (part 2, summaries of the Open Source Yoga Unity and Evolation district court cases), where it is now (part 3, summaries of the 9th Circuit briefs on file), and the end result (part 4, ???). Please stay tuned.