By Catherine Schutz
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that a series of yoga poses is a “sequence” and therefore inappropriate for copyright protection. The ruling was widely praised within the yoga community, with many relieved to finally have clarity on the question of whether yoga can be “owned.” But how does this ruling fit into wider intellectual property law? And what is the rationale for protecting some industries with intellectual property law and not others?
In the 1970s, Bikram Choudhury developed a series of 26-yoga poses and breathing exercises, which he named “the Sequence,” to be practiced in a studio with a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1979, he published a book called Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class which outlined the poses, which he registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. In 2002 he also registered the compilation of poses outlined in the book. Choudhury’s style of yoga gained in popularity, and he began teaching other yoga teachers his particular style. In 2009, two of his former students opened Evolation Yoga, which offered many different styles of yoga, including “hot yoga” based on the teachings of Choudhury. In 2011, Choudhury brought suit against Evolation Yoga claiming copyright infringement.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower courts finding that “at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea—the words and pictures used to describe the Sequence—and not the idea of the Sequence itself.” In their ruling, they cited 17 U.S.C. § 102, part (a) of which outlines what can be copyrighted (literary works, musical works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, etc.) and part (b) of which outlines what cannot be copyrighted: “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery…” The Court said that Choudhury’s “Sequence” falls on the “idea” side of the “idea/expression” dichotomy.
This isn’t the first time that people have attempted to copyright ideas only to have the courts rule them unsuitable for copyright. The fashion industry is unique in the creative arts for having very little copyright protection. Within fashion, copyright protection is limited to “pictorial designs printed on fabric.” However, outside of logos, courts routinely hold that fashion is too utilitarian to be protected by copyright. They will allow fashion houses to copyright their logo printed on a bag, but not the use of pleats or peter pan collars in a garment.
The lack of intellectual property protection within fashion has been the subject of much debate. The Council of Fashion Designers of America advocates for increased protection “without stifling creativity, spurring frivolous lawsuits, and hindering the industry’s ability to do business.” Senator Charles E. Schumer in 2012 introduced the Innovative Design Protection Act which would extend intellectual property protections to “never-before-seen” fashion designs. However, academic Johanna Blakley argued in her Ted Talk that not providing the fashion industry with intellectual property protection actually improves creativity and helps business. This was also the question that Mark Lemley grappled with during his 56th Miller Lecture in September at the College of Law, where he addressed the topic of “Intellectual Property in a World Without Scarcity.”
On the other hand, copyright protections are widespread within the music industry. However, courts have struggled to determine the line between copyright infringement and creative influence. This struggle reached the Federal District Court of the Central District of California when the descendants of Marvin Gaye brought suit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, arguing that their hit 2013 song “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.” The District Court found in favor of Gaye’s descendants, finding Thicke and Williams liable for over $7 million of damages. Some lawyers have criticized the ruling saying that Thicke and Williams were only influence by Gaye, and that “no one owns a genre or a style or a groove.”
This lively debate on what should and should not be protected by intellectual property laws is unlikely to reach a resolution any time soon. As Mark Lemley discussed during the Miller Lecture, the advent of internet has changed the industry in a way that is only now being research, debated and understood. But all Bikram Yoga lovers should rest assured that their practice will not be interrupted by a court case any time soon.
 Federal Court Rules that Bikram Doesn’t Own Yoga: Copyright Claim Can’t Stand the Heat, Evolation Yoga, https://www.evolationyoga.com/copyright-ruling-story/ (last visited Oct. 19, 2015).
 See note 1.
 Copyright Act of 1979, 17 U.S.C. § 102 (2012).
 See note 1.
 Dan Hunter, The Oxford Introductions to U.S. Law: Intellectual Property 220 (2012).
 Protecting Design, Council of Fashion Designers of America, http://cfda.com/programs/protecting-intellectual-property (last visited Oct. 19, 2015).
 Johanna Blakley, Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture, (Apr. 10, 2010), https://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture?nolanguage=en+-+t-623373.
 56th Miller Lecture: Internet Revolutionized Creativity, Changing IP Law, Georgia State University (Sep. 17, 2015), http://law.gsu.edu/2015/09/17/56th-miller-lecture/.
 Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., No. 13-06004 (C.D. Cal. July 14, 2015).