Monday, March 28, 2005

Should Yoga Be Free (Like Speech)?

Bikram Choudhury, an LA (really Beverly Hills) based yoga teacher has developed a sequence of traditional yoga positions that his students follow in heated yoga studios. He wrote a book about it, and he now claims copyright protection. A group of yoga teachers, who call themselves Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU), are challenging his copyright claims. Here's a story from CIO Insight, where I first saw the issue.
The key question raised by OSYU's lawsuit is whether Choudhury 'can control another person's practice of yoga or teaching of yoga just because he wrote a book about it,' Harrison said. Choudhury can't claim any of his positions are unique because they have been used for thousands of years, he said.

Choudhury's attempt to copyright yoga positions would be like the New York Yankees inventing a new pitching style and trying to copyright it to prevent all other pitchers or baseball teams from using it. Such ideas 'start spinning into the absurd,' and no court would uphold such claims, Harrison said.
The closest legal parallel to what Choudhury is attempting would be a someone who copyrighted a dance choreography, Harrison suggested.

Dance choreography could be copyrighted, But dance 'is expressive art. [Yoga] is exercise not expression. It is not saying anything,' Harrison said. Therefore it can't be copyrighted under the law, he said.

What it boils down to, Harrison said, is that Choudhury has attempted to copyright a process. 'You can't copyright a process and yoga is exercise -- a process of conditioning the human body,' Harrison. People can apply to get a patent for a process, but 'Choudhury hasn't tried to patent anything.'
The situation has also been likened to an author publishing and copyrighting a cookbook, Harrison said. 'You can copyright a cookbook, but you can't keep someone from teaching cooking,' Harrison said.
OSYU members just want to do what they have always done, to freely practice and teach yoga as it has been taught since ancient times, Harrison said.
Here's more from The Chicago Tribune
Hollander [Choudhury's lawyer]contends that yoga is no different from music or any other form of expression.

'There's nothing special about yoga which should make it special or in some way removed from copyright law,' she said. 'In my view it is just a form of expression that has public domain elements to it.'

That view is a stretch to some yoga enthusiasts. 'To say that, basically, a tradition of working with the body can be somebody's intellectual property — no matter how they put them together — seems pretty bizarre,' said Deborah Willoughby, founding editor of Yoga International, a magazine that focuses on the spiritual aspects of yoga. 'It's a violation of the spirit of yoga.'

Copyright law does not extend to an idea or process; it only addresses the way an idea is actually expressed. That means a book, video or photograph can be copyrighted, but teaching a recipe written in a cookbook, for example, could not. [This seems to me to be a key distinction. rja]

Athletic movements, such as a basketball star's signature slam-dunk, cannot be copyrighted because sports games are unscripted and have unanticipated occurrences.

'I'm not aware of anyone who has successfully done what Bikram is trying to do,' said Netanel, who has discussed the case in his law classes. 'Which is, through the guise of copyrighting photographs or descriptions of an exercise method, to control the practice of yoga.'

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