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:[framed_box]
resist the enforcement of the copyright protection of any Yoga style thereby ensuring its continued natural unfettered practice for all to enjoy and develop.[/framed_box]
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:[framed_box]
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.[/framed_box]
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 infringement, unfair 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.