On October 8, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a sequence of yoga poses and breathing exercises was not entitled to copyright protection under the U.S. Copyright Act. Bikram’s Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga, No. 13-55763 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2015).
PLAINTIFFS’ CLAIMS. The plaintiffs contended that the yoga sequences in question–26 poses and two breathing exercises developed by Bikram Choudhury and described in his book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class–were entitled to copyright protection as a choreographic work. Since the enactment of the 1976 Copyright Act, “pantomimes and choreographic works” have been eligible for copyright protection. However, the court determined that although the poses and exercises possessed aesthetic attributes, “at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health.” For this reason, the court concluded that the sequence was ineligible for copyright protection under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b).
THE IDEA/EXPRESSION DICHOTOMY. Section 102(b) of 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.” This statute codifies the well-known “idea/expression dichotomy”–the principle that copyright protects only the expression of an idea, but does not award exclusive rights as to the underlying idea itself. Other courts have invoked the idea/expression dichotomy to deny copyright protection to process-ideas such as meditation exercises, see Palmer v. Braun, 287 F. 3d 1325 (11th Cir. 2002), food recipes, see Publications International, Ltd. v. Meredith Corp., 88 F. 3d 473 (9th Cir. 1996), and a manual describing how to organize roller-skating races, see Seltzer v. Sunbrock, 22 F. Supp. 621 (S.D. Cal. 1938).
AN UNPROTECTABLE PROCESS, NOT A CHOREOGRAPHIC WORK. The claimants argued that the yoga sequence in question met the literal definition of a choreographic work as used by the U.S. Copyright Office. However, the court observed that the claimants themselves described the sequence as a “system” or “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 light of this and other statements by the claimants, the court concluded that they were “attempt[ing] to secure copyright protection for a healing art: a system designed to yield physical benefits and a sense of well-being. Simply put, this attempt is precluded by copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy, codified in Section 102(b).”
The court explained that even if the yoga sequence could be described in a manner that would meet the Copyright Office’s definition of a choreographic work, this would not alter the conclusion that the sequence constituted an unprotectable idea or process. The court wrote that,
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. 17 U.S.C.§102(b). We recognize that the Sequence may involve“static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships.” Compendium II,§ 450.01. So too would a method to churn butter or drill for oil. That is no accident: “successions of bodily movement”often serve basic functional purposes. Such movements do not become copyrightable as “choreographic works” when they are part and parcel of a process. Even if the Sequence could fit within some colloquial definitions of dance or choreography, it remains a process ineligible for copyright protection.
The idea/expression dichotomy … plays a similar role in defining the scope of protection for a choreographic work as it does for compilations…. In the context of choreographic works, that role is essential. 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 … 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. 17 U.S.C. §102(b).