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Noah Feldman

Twisted Decision on Yoga Copyright

The Bikram sequence should be protected the same as Balanchine ballets.
Breathe in, breathe out.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held last week that Bikram yoga can't be copyrighted. The decision covers California -- yoga’s American heartland -- and it'll probably influence courts elsewhere. Although the ideal of yoga being free to all is appealing, the court got this one wrong. The stylized, precise sequence of poses arranged by Bikram Choudhury, and performed in a 105 degree room, should’ve been treated as choreography, entitled to copyright protection, not as an abstract expression of medical ideas.

The court rested its holding on a classic feature of copyright law: You can't protect an idea, but you can protect the expression of that idea. If Shakespeare were around today, he couldn't copyright the idea of star-crossed lovers from enemy families. But he could copyright the text of “Romeo and Juliet” and so control performance of the play.