Exercise Methods Are Not Protected by Copyright
Oct. 9, 2015
Whether it’s yoga, karate, Pilates or any other form of movement or exercise, the copyright laws do not protect the modalities themselves. Copyright protection can only be secured for the manner in which they are described, and even then, protection is limited.
In 1979, Bikram Yoga’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, published Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, which included descriptions, photographs, and drawings of his “Sequence” of twenty-six poses and two breathing exercises. The copyright was registered in the U.S. Copyright Office in 1979. In 2002, using a supplementary registration form, he registered the “compilation of exercises” contained in the book.
In 2002 and 2005, respectively, Mark Drost and Zefea Samson took Bikram’s 3-month teacher training course. In 2009, they formed Evolation Yoga, LLC, which offers “hot yoga,” among others. As the defendants admitted, Hot Yoga, like Bikram, “includes 26 postures and two breathing exercises and is done for 90 minutes, accompanied by a series of oral instructions, in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Choudhury sued in 2011, claiming infringement on his copyrighted works. In 2012, the District Court granted defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on the copyright claim, ruling that “Sequence is a collection of facts and ideas” that is not entitled to copyright protection. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision. 
Processes, systems, methods and ideas are not protected by copyright
The Copyright Act expressly excludes protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” 
Choudhury describes his “Sequence” is a “system” or a “method” designed to “systematically work every part of the body, to give all internal organs, all the veins, all the ligaments, and all the muscles everything they need to maintain optimum health and maximum function.” In Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, Choudhury explains that he “arrived at the sequence of postures” after “[researching] the diseases and the postures and after many years of research and verification . . . using modern medical measurement techniques.” The book tells readers that “Bikram’s twenty-six exercises systematically move fresh, oxygenated blood to one hundred percent of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy working order, just as Nature intended.” An essential element of Choudhury’s system is the order in which the poses and breathing exercises are to be performed.
Because the Sequence “is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health,” the Court found it ineligible for copyright protection. The Court repeated this basic principle throughout its decision like a mantra.
Beauty and Grace do not make exercise sequences copyrightable
Choudhury argued to the court that his arrangement of postures is “particularly beautiful and graceful” and therefore should be protected by copyright.
“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… [J]ust like [a] recipe, the Sequence remains unprotectable as a process, the design of which primarily reflects function, not expression.”
The order and sequence of exercises are not copyrightable.
The court applied the same reasoning to Choudhury’s claim that the actual selection and order of the exercises and positions were protectable as a “compilation:”
“As we have explained, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system; therefore, it is not eligible for copyright protection. That the Sequence may possess many constituent parts does not transform it into a proper subject of copyright protection. Virtually any process or system could be dissected in a similar fashion.”
Finally, the court noted that according to Choudhury’s own descriptions of his method, “the very selection and arrangement of poses and breathing exercises for which he claims copyright protection” were compelled by medical and functional considerations… The Sequence’s composition renders it more effective as a process or system, but not any more suitable for copyright protection as an original work of authorship.”
Thus, it “makes no difference that similar results could be achieved through a different organization of yoga poses and breathing exercises.” Although Choudhury could have chosen from “hundreds of postures” and “countless arrangements of these postures” in developing the Sequence, “the possibility of attaining a particular end through multiple different methods does not render the uncopyrightable a proper subject of copyright.”
Whether it’s Bikram Yoga, meditation exercises, or Pilates, methods of exercise and movement are not protected by copyright
The Bikram decision is not the first decision to teach that methods of exercise or movement cannot be protected by copyright, and it may not be the last, given the number of exercise and movement modalities in the marketplace looking to protect their businesses through intellectual property laws.
What is protected by copyright, then? The particular words and photographs contained in a manual or book are clearly copyrightable, but the ideas they express are not. Thus, particular descriptions of exercises or movements enjoy only a limited scope of protection, given that there are only certain ways that they can be described. Photographs, on the other hand, because they involve composition, angle and lighting, are likely to enjoy a broader scope of protection. In short, the copyright for an exercise, movement, or teacher training publication does not extend to the choice, sequence or method of exercise, the method or sequence of teaching, or the particular ways in which the exercise or movements are performed or taught. The copyright does, however, protect against piracy and unauthorized distribution of publication, including (most typically) via the Internet.
The Bikram decision can be accessed at:
 Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. and Bikram Choudhury v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, Mark Drost and Zefea Samson, No. 13-55763, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, October 8, 2015. On appeal from the U.S. District Court, Central District of California (No. 2:11-cv-05506-ODW-SS).
 17 U.S.C. 102(b).