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Can you copyright a signature yoga pose or choreographed dance move?

Posted by Steve Vondran | Feb 24, 2017 | 0 Comments

Copyright Law Issues – Protection of creative yoga and dance move compilations!


This blog discusses whether or not you can seek federal copyright protection by registering your unique dances moves, signature yoga poses, or other creative choreography. In general a yoga stance might not be easy to protect, nor would a simple dance move, however, there might be circumstances when a creative arrangement and compilation might create a right to obtain a copyright.


Key case – Birkam's Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga, LLC

The case of Birkam v. Evolation involved a California company facing off against a New York LLC in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

General background:

In 1971, Bikram Choudhury, the “self-proclaimed ‘Yogi to the stars,” at 56, arrived in Beverly Hills, California. He soon became a central figure in the growing popularity of yoga in the United States. Born and raised in Calcutta, India, Choudhury began studying yoga at age four and learned hundreds of traditional Hatha yoga “asanas,” or individual poses. Hatha yoga places particular emphasis on the physical components of yoga. Choudhury developed a sequence of twenty-six asanas and two breathing exercises, arranged in a particular order, which he calls the “Sequence.” See Bikram Choudhury, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class (1979). Choudhury opened his own studio, where he began offering “Bikram Yoga” classes. In a Bikram Yoga class, the Sequence is practiced over the course of ninety minutes, to a series of instructions (the “Dialogue”), in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate Choudhury's native Indian climate. Choudhury popularized the Sequence by marketing the many health and fitness benefits it provides. Choudhury informs prospective students that his “system of Hatha Yoga is capable of helping you avoid, correct, cure, heal, or at least alleviate the symptoms of almost any illness or injury.” He claims that he developed the Sequence after “many of years of research and verification using modern medical measurement techniques.” He tells reporters that he extended the careers of professional athletes, including Kareem Abdul–Jabbar and John McEnroe. This message has resonated with an American audience: as the complaint in this action explains, “[p]ublic demand for Bikram Yoga classes grew steadily once Bikram Yoga participants realized that Bikram's unique yoga style and method offered them tremendous physical, mental and other benefits.” In 1979, Choudhury published the book Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, which includes descriptions, photographs, and drawings of the Sequence's twenty-six poses and two breathing exercises. Choudhury registered the book with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1979. In 2002, he also registered the “compilation of exercises” contained in the book, using a supplementary registration form that referenced back to the 1979 book. In 1994, Choudhury introduced the “Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course.” In 2002 and 2005, respectively, Mark Drost and Zefea Samson enrolled in and successfully completed the three-month Bikram Yoga Teacher Training course.

In 2009, Drost and Samson founded Evolation Yoga, LLC. Evolation Yoga offers several types and styles of yoga, including “hot yoga,” which is similar to “Bikram's Basic Yoga System.” Evolation acknowledges that hot yoga “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.”

On July 1, 2011, Choudhury and Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. (“Choudhury”) filed a complaint in the Central District of California alleging, inter alia, that defendants Evolation Yoga, LLC, Mark Drost, and Zefea Samson (“ Evolation”) infringed “Bikram's Copyrighted Works through substantial use of Bikram's Copyrighted Works in and as part of Defendants' offering of yoga classes.” On November 12, 2012, Evolation moved for partial summary judgment as to Choudhury's claim of copyright infringement of the “Sequence.” The district court granted Evolation's motion, ruling that the “Sequence is a collection of facts and ideas” that is not entitled to copyright protection. The parties settled all remaining claims against each other, and Choudhury timely appealed as to the “Sequence.”   See Bikram's Yoga Coll. of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC, 803 F.3d 1032, 1035–36 (9th Cir. 2015).

Legal issue:  Whether or not the yoga sequence was protected by copyright laws, such that Plaintiff could maintain a claim of federal copyright infringement which would allow Plaintiff to seek damages and penalties for copyright infringement.

Courts holding:

Though Choudhury emphasizes the aesthetic attributes of the Sequence's “graceful flow,” 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. Because the Sequence is an unprotectable idea, it is also ineligible for copyright protection as a “compilation” or “choreographic work.” The district court properly granted partial summary judgment in favor of Evolation because the Sequence is not a proper subject of copyright.

Rationale: The court gave three main reasons for its holding: A. The Sequence Is an Unprotectable Idea. “Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act of 1976 sets forth the proper subjects of copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). “Section 102(b) 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.” Id. § 102(b). Section 102(b) codifies the “idea/expression dichotomy,” under which “every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.” B. The Sequence Is Not a Copyrightable Compilation. “Choudhury contends that the Sequence is entitled to copyright protection as a “compilation.” Specifically, Choudhury claims that the Sequence qualifies for copyright protection because his “selection, coordination, and arrangement” of twenty-six poses and two breathing exercises create a coherent and expressive composition. The district court correctly rejected this argument. The Copyright Act identifies compilations as a proper subject of copyright. Section 103 of the Copyright Act provides that “the subject matter of copyright as specified in section 102 includes compilations.” 17 U.S.C. § 103(a). A “compilation” is “a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.” Id. § 101. It is essential to recognize, however, that Section 103 complements Section 102. Thus, while a compilation may be eligible for copyright protection, it must nevertheless satisfy the requirements of Section 102. A compilation must, in other words, represent an “original work of authorship,” and “in no case” may copyright protection “extend to any idea, procedure, process, or system.” Id. § 102. The availability of copyright protection for compilations, therefore, does not eliminate Section 102's categorical bar on copyright protection for ideas.” C. The Sequence Is Not a Copyrightable Choreographic Work. “The district court properly rejected Choudhury's argument that the Sequence is entitled to copyright protection as a choreographic work. The 1976 Copyright Act extended protection to “ pantomimes and choreographic works,” which were previously not copyrightable. Pub.L. No. 94–553, 90 Stat. 2541, 2545 (codified at 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(4)). In 1986, the Second Circuit observed that “[e]xplicit federal copyright protection for choreography is a fairly recent development, and the scope of that protection is an uncharted area of the law.” Horgan v. Macmillan, Inc., 789 F.2d 157, 160 (2d Cir.1986). This remains true today. The parties debate the meaning of the term “choreography,” which we have not yet defined in the copyright context. Nor did Congress define the term “choreographic work,” apparently because its meaning was “fairly settled.” H.R.Rep. No. 94–1476, at 53 (1976). The legislative history does explain, however, that it is not “necessary to specify that ‘choreographic works' do not include social dance steps and simple routines.” Id. at 53–54. The Second Circuit has relied on the Compendium of Copyright Office Practices as persuasive authority and concluded that “choreography represents a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole.” Horgan, 789 F.2d at 161 (quoting U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium II: Compendium of Copyright Office Practices § 450.03(a) (1984)).” The Compendium II defines “dance” as “static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships.” Compendium II, § 450.01.   The “dance movements,” according to the Compendium II, “must be more than mere exercises, such as ‘jumping jacks' or walking steps.” Id. § 450.03(a). Finally, the Compendium II explains that choreography is “usually intended to be accompanied by music” but “need not tell a story” and need not be presented “before an audience.” Id. §§ 450.01–450.02.

Take away:

This case should give you some general guidance on what would be required to seek copyright protection for yoga positions and choreographed dance moves and compilations.  There is additional guidance below.

U.S. Copyright Office statement of policy regarding compilations

In one copyright “statement of policy” from the United States Copyright Office (2012), they discussed ways in which there MIGHT be a way to protect dance or yoga moves that constitute “compilation authorship.  In this statement of policy they noted:

“SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The Copyright Office is issuing a statement of policy to clarify its examination practices with respect to claims in “compilation authorship,” or the selection, coordination, or arrangement of material that is otherwise separately uncopyrightable. The Office has long accepted claims of registration based on the selection, coordination, or arrangement of uncopyrightable elements, because the Copyright Act specifically states that copyrightable authorship includes compilations. 17 U.S.C. 103.”

The statement goes on to describe what a compilation is:

A`compilation” is a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship. 17 U.S.C. 101 (“compilation”). This definition's inclusion of the terms`preexisting material” or “data” suggest that individually uncopyrightable elements may be compiled into a copyrightable whole. The legislative history of the 1976 Act supports this interpretation, stating that a compilation`results from a process of selecting, bringing together, organizing, and arranging previously existing material of all kinds, regardless of whether the individual items in the material have been or ever could have been subject to copyright.” H.R. Rep. 94-1476, at 57 (emphasis added).

The policy memorandum then discussed that there must still be unique work of authorship in the whole:

“Viewed in a vacuum, it might appear that any organization of preexisting material may be copyrightable. However, the Copyright Act, the legislative history and the Supreme Court's decision in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 346 (U.S. 1991), lead to a different conclusion. In Feist, interpreting the congressional language in the section 101 definition of`compilation,” the Supreme Court found protectable compilations to be limited to`a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting material or data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.” Feist at 356, quoting 17 U.S.C. 101 (“compilation”) (emphasis by the Court). The Court stated: The purpose of the statutory definition is to emphasize that collections of facts are not copyrightable per se. It conveys this message through its tripartite structure, as emphasized above by the italics. The statute identifies three distinct elements and requires each to be met for a work to qualify as a copyrightable compilation:

(1) The collection and assembly of pre-existing material, facts, or data;

(2) the selection, coordination, or arrangement of those materials;


(3) the creation, by virtue of the particular selection, coordination, or arrangement, of an`original” work of authorship. Not every selection, coordination, or arrangement will pass muster. This is plain from the statute. We conclude that the statute envisions that there will be some fact-based works in which the selection, coordination, and arrangement are not sufficiently original to trigger copyright protection.

Do you need a copyright registration certificate before filing a federal copyright infringement lawsuit?

PODCAST:  Listen to Attorney Steve® explain this legal concept.

Copyright office definition of Pantomimes and Choreographic works

Here is a fact sheet from the U.S. Copyright office on copyrighting pantomime and choreographic works.  The definition on their website states:

“Choreography and pantomimes are also copyrightable dramatic works. Choreography is the composition and arrangement of dance movements and patterns usually intended to be accompanied by music. As distinct from choreography, pantomime is the art of imitating or acting out situations, characters, or other events. To be protected by copyright, pantomimes and choreography need not tell a story or be presented before an audience. Each work, however, must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression from which the work can be performed. Note: Sports games and physical-fitness exercises are not considered choreographic works.”

17 U.S.C. 103 “Compilations”

Section 17 U,S.C. 103 of the U.S. Copyright laws discusses limitations on the the right to claim copyright protection in a yoga or dance compilation:

“(a) The subject matter of copyright as specified by section 102 includes compilations and derivative works, but protection for a work employing preexisting material in which copyright subsists does not extend to any part of the work in which such material has been used unlawfully.

(b) The copyright in a compilation or derivative work extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material. The copyright in such work is independent of, and does not affect or enlarge the scope, duration, ownership, or subsistence of, any copyright protection in the preexisting material.”

So the extent you might be able to claim copyright protection, you would not have any rights in any pre-existing works incorporated into your dance moves or yoga poses.

Is there any other types of intellectual property protection?

If you cannot obtain protection for the yoga position, stance, or pose, you might still be able to seek copyright protection for the following (meaning you could have the right to sue anyone who copied your work under the copyright infringement laws, and also be able to license your work to others for profit):

1. Dance videos – ex. a dance moves training video (the video can be copyrighted)

2.  Pictures or compilations of dance move or yoga position (the photo for a book for example could be copyrighted, as could a book itself).

3.  Podcasts that describe your moves in detail (copyright the podcast or webpage)

4.    A film that incorporates the dance move (copyright the film or video)

These are just a few ideas.

Contact a copyright protection & infringement law firm

If you find yourself embroiled in a dispute over copyrighted dance, yoga, or other creative works, contact us to discuss your case.  We offer a free initial consultation at (877) 276-5084.  We have extensive federal court experience and excellent client reviews

About the Author

Steve Vondran

Thank you for viewing our blogs, videos and podcasts. As noted, all information on this website is Attorney Advertising. Decisions to hire an attorney should never be based on advertising alone. Any past results discussed herein do not guarantee or predict any future results. All blogs are written by Steve Vondran, Esq. unless otherwise indicated. Our firm handles a wide variety of intellectual property and entertainment law cases from music and video law, Youtube disputes, DMCA litigation, copyright infringement cases involving software licensing disputes (ex. BSA, SIIA, Siemens, Autodesk, Vero, CNC, VB Conversion and others), torrent internet file-sharing (Strike 3 and Malibu Media), California right of publicity, TV Signal Piracy, and many other types of IP, piracy, technology, and social media disputes. Call us at (877) 276-5084. AZ Bar Lic. #025911 CA. Bar Lic. #232337


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