No Yoga for You! Yoga to the People in the hot seat for copyright and trademark infringement

Posted by | December 08, 2011 | Disputes, General | 10 Comments

Was yoga historically “open source?”  Even if it was, does that matter under U.S. Jurisprudence?   My guess is that it does not.   What do you think?   Read on and see if it changes your mind.

 

My good friend and mentor, Ajax Greene of On Belay Business Advisors and eGlisten, sent me a link to an article on Yoga Journal about a lawsuit filed by Bikram Choudhury and Bikram’s Yoga College of India (Bikram) against Yoga to the People (YTTP).  Yes, even yogis can be litigious.  Especially this one.  Choudhury has filed 3 copyright lawsuits this year alone, as well a similar suit  in 2008 and another in 2003.  So what’s got Choudhury all tied up in knots?

In 2003 Choudhury obtained a copyright registration for his Bikram Yoga yoga sequence, according to a press release available on Open Source Yoga Unity’s (Yoga Unity) website.  Yoga Unity, mind you, has a highly conspicuous red notice on its homepage that states:

2011 NOTICE – BIKRAM RESUMES CEASE AND DESIST LETTER WRITING!

The organization’s Mission (true to its name) is to:

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resist the enforcement of the copyright protection of any Yoga style thereby ensuring its continued natural unfettered practice for all to enjoy and develop.

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As interesting as Yoga Unity is, I need to back up a bit.  Bikram Yoga is a 90 minute asana sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises that is performed in a room heated to at least 105 degrees.  According to the lawsuit against YTTP, Choudhury developed and has offered instruction in this “unique brand of yoga known as Bikram Yoga,” since 1971.  He also founded Bikram’s Yoga College of India (BYCI) to which he licensed his intellectual property (IP) rights.  The suit claims that YTTP founder and owner, Gregory Gumucio is a formerly certified Bikram Yoga instructor who signed a Teacher Training Agreement that prohibited him from using any Bikram IP or derivative thereof outside of his relationship with the plaintiffs.  The complaint continues:

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Gumucio and YTTP: (a) do not own Bikram’s IP; (b) have no right, title or interest in or to the Bikram Yoga style and method, including the Marks, the Dialogue, or other of Bikram’s Copyrighted Works; and (c) are not authorized to offer the deceptively named and infringing “Traditional Hot Yoga” class at YTTP at any price whatsoever.

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Bikram wrote a book on Bikram in 1978.  He also wrote what he refers to as The Dialogue, “an original work of authorship consisting of a series of instructions and commands that accompany, and correspond to, each posture of Bikram Yoga.”  Bikram has copyright registrations for a total of 9 works altogether, including registrations for the book, The Dialogue, various sequences of poses, and an audiotape and videocassette.

Bikram also owns 8 different BIKRAM trademark records out of a total of 11 LIVE trademark records it owns.  The suit against YTTP alleges copyright infringement and trademark infringementunfair competition and dilution as well as breach of contract and inducing breach of contract (elsewhere referred to as tortious interference with contractual relations).  Setting aside the debate about whether yoga poses should or should not be protectable; under U.S. copyright law, they are.  Sure, there are many ancient poses and sequences that are not protectable, but Bikram Yoga is not one of them.

Mr. Gumucio may be a flexible yogi, but I think he’s gonna find himself hard pressed to learn how inflexible copyright infringement law is.  The sad thing is, Gumucio and YTTP are trying to do a good thing by making yoga affordable.  However, just like the folks at Brooklyn Grange, about which I wrote here, while their model is awesome, they have to honor other’s IP rights.

Whether Bikram’s suit ultimately is “good for business” is another story.  My guess is that the long term financial benefits must outweigh the short term PR costs, or why bother?

This is another one of those cases that falls under the category Just because you want it to be so, doesn’t mean it is.  Just because the folks at Yoga Unity and YTTP believe that yoga poses are in the public domain doesn’t make it so, at least not under U.S. Copyright Law.  This is one teaching they seem determined to learn the hard way.

 

 

 

About Lara

Lara Pearson is a trademark attorney with Exemplar, where she also serves as the firm's Sustainability Steward. Lara's legal practice focuses on trademark and copyright law, including: intellectual property audits; trademark search & clearance; trademark and copyright registration & maintenance; intellectual property transfers; transactional work; and dispute resolution, including litigation when necessary. Lara primarily represents other social enterprises -- those leveraging their businesses and brands as catalysts for positive social and environmental change. Such businesses engage in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to have a positive "triple bottom line" of people, planet and profit. As Exemplar's Sustainability Steward, Lara works with others in her law firm to measure and reduce the firm's carbon emissions and encourage engagement in social responsibility initiatives, including pro bono legal work and volunteering. Lara is a proud member of the Social Venture Network. Brand Geek is a member of 1% for the Planet and a Certified B Corporation, whose Incline Village office is certified under the regional Keep the Sierra Green program. Exemplar Companies is the most innovative professional services firm in the New Economy. Our unique, diversified expertise spans the disciplines of corporate law, business advisory, and capital/investment banking to better meet the needs of our high-potential customers. We have assembled a comprehensive suite of service to meet the complex issues facing companies in today’s challenging business environment. Our unique, holistic approach ensures the growth and success – and greatly increases the competitive advantage - of our customers. The Exemplar team is comprised of knowledgeable, highly skilled experts in a wide range of industries and disciplines. They work closely with our customers to provide trusted advice, incomparable support, expert guidance and the ultimate competitive advantage as they accelerate their businesses and position themselves to transform industries.

10 Comments

  • Geri says:

    I guess finding useful, reliable information on the internet isn’t hopeless after all.

  • Hot yoga or Bikram yoga is a form of yoga that is performed in a heated room of 105F (40.6C). It is created by Bikram Choudhury during the 1970s. Each session runs for 90 minutes and comprises of 26 posture and 2 breathing exercises.

    • Lara says:

      Thanks for reading, and for confirming what I said in my post (save that I thought the room was heated to 104 instead of 105 Fahrenheit — either way it’s way too hot for me!).

  • sonny says:

    Please see Yogatruth dot org and read the formal response to the lawsuit, see Greg’s yoga diploma, and read the Copyright Office’s official position on yoga and copyright. I don’t know if this is something which can be pursued any further. For now, it appears someone’s day of glory may be fading.

    • Lara says:

      I will check that out. Maybe I will do a follow-up post some time this week (I’ve been slacking as you can see). As my original post states (and I think links to) — Bikram owns a lot of copyright registrations, including one for the 25 pose sequence. Without having looked at the materials you reference re: the Copyright Office’s official position on yoga (which I do look forward to reviewing), my guess is that substantial sequences are protectable — like choreography — single moves or even a few moves grouped together are not. The question that leads me to (again, operating from a point of ignorance on the specific issue) is whether doing the 25 moves in any other sequence is an infringing derivative work of the original 25 move sequence or if the work can only be directly infringed. My guess is that copyright protection extends to those 25 moves performed together in any sequence. I look forward to seeing if I’m correct. Thanks for continuing the dialogue with me. Research and writing is challenging and fun, but this is the best part of blogging by far! Happy holidays!

  • sonny says:

    It seems the tide is turning…..are you keeping up with current developments in this case?……..what will you have to say if the end result is Bikram doesn’t have a right to what he believes he does have a right to?

    • Lara says:

      Hi Sonny. Thanks for reading and commenting on my post. I haven’t looked into this case since I last posted about it; what have you heard or read and where? If Bikram’s presumptive rights stemming from his registrations get struck down I will say “OM.”

  • Like any other exercise, a person only experiences full Bikram yoga benefits if he / she is dedicated to the practice. Especially if your goal is to lose weight, you must realize that you need to undergo a long process and consistent effort exerted before you can actually reach your goal.

    • Lara says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. I don’t get what your comment has to do with the lawsuit or trademark law, but thanks for posting anyways!

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