The United States Court of Appeals has ruled that a sequence of twenty six yoga poses developed by Bikram Choudhury, published in a book in 1979 with descriptions, photographs and drawings and taught as part of a teacher training course since 1994, could not be the subject of copyright protection because it was an idea, process or system designed to improve health rather than the expression of an idea. The court held that because the sequence was an unprotectable idea it was ineligible for copyright protection as a compilation or choreographic work. Opinion, Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. and Bikram Choudhury v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, Mark Drost, and Zefea Samson, Case No. 13-55763 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2015).
Can you copyright choreography?
The court rejected the argument that the sequence of movements could be regarded as choreography by stating:
Thus for example, the copyright for a book describing how to perform a complicated surgery does not give the holder the exclusive right to perform the surgery. Like the series of movements a surgeon makes, the Sequence is as Choudhury tells readers, a method designed to cure, heal, or at least alleviate physical injuries and illness. Monopoly protection can only be secured, if it can be secured at all by letters-patent.
The court accepted that the expression of the yoga sequence in the book is entitled to copyright protection. But the underlying idea is not.
The position under the South African Copyright Act of 1978 is much like the position under US copyright law. It recognizes choreography as a subject of copyright. Under the Copyright Act, dramatic works are defined to include choreographic work or entertainment in a dumb show if reduced to material form. Assuming Choudhury’s printed yoga sequence is original, it would probably have been protected under South African copyright law as a choreographic work. One cannot help but wonder whether Choudhury could have had a favorable result had his matter been heard by a South African court.