Yoga to the People settles with Bikram

Yoga to the People’s East Village studio—it’s real hot.

Although the Federal Copyright Office ruled in June that a series of poses cannot be copyrighted, Yoga to the People has agreed to stop offering the Bikram series in order to settle a lawsuit from Bikram Choudhury. The name is not a coincidence. Choudhury, known as “Bikram” in hushed tones with whale sounds in the background, invented the Bikram series of 26 poses performed in a room heated to 105 degrees. “Invented” is maybe the wrong word. The poses themselves are thousands of years old, but Bikram assembled them into a series that, done right, is an amazingly therapeutic workout. I would like to thank him for my increased shoulder mobility and steadily improving abs. Really, though, I should thank Jennifer Hoover and Hot House Missoula, since they’re the ones who actually put me through the paces.

All Bikram did was come up with the workout. He and his subsidiaries offer it at several studios around the world, including one in Missoula. I don’t go to Bikram Missoula, in part because Hot House is cheaper and in part because the instructors at Bikram Missoula have a reputation for being unpleasant. Their studio has the Bikram name, though, and that’s worth something. The word “Bikram” appears nowhere at Hot House; they call their series of 26 hatha asanas performed in a heated room “hot yoga,” because to do otherwise would violate Bikram’s trademark.

It does not, I reiterate, violate his copyright. Although Bikram successfully copyrighted his series in 2003, the Copyright Office has since declared that a mistake. Bikram continues to be extremely litigious, however, and the founder of Y to the P,  Greg Gumucio, has opted to stop teaching the series rather than defend his position in court. Instead, he will develop a new series based on Bikram with different poses.

How many different poses? The question suggests the problematic nature of copyrighting a series of movements and the context in which one does them. If Gumucio adds one chaturanga, does he have a different sequence? What if he changes the temperature of the room from 105 to 103 degrees? If he takes Bikram’s 13 spine-strengthening poses and makes them the second half of a combined vinyasa-hatha class, does he have a new series? How much Bikram must you do to still be doing Bikram?

There is no bright-line distinction between where one workout ends and another begins, which is why the Bikram series cannot be copyrighted in the same way as the Bikram name or a video of people doing it. That’s the legal reason, at least. From the broader perspective of what copyright laws do for society, I think there’s a very good reason not to let Bikram copyright his series, too.

Consider the related example of Brazilian jiu jitsu, sometimes called Gracie jiu jitsu. The Gracie family invented/developed/codified it, but they did not copyright it. For a long time, they were the only people teaching it because they were the only people who knew it, but they did not subsequently prevent others from teaching what they developed.To do so would have thwarted Helio Gracie’s fundamental project, which was (explicitly) to develop a system of ground fighting and (implicitly) to spread it around the world.

Particularly in physical culture, but also in the realms of artistic craft and professional development, the object of coming up with a better way of doing things is so people will do things better. Musicianship, athletics, literary skill—these things develop collectively over time, driven by the contributions of individual creators. Coming up with something new is how you participate in culture. You give yourself an advantage, yes, but you also want to share that advantage with society.

By “you” I mean “everyone except for you.” When you come up with a genius idea like Bikram yoga or the triangle choke from the guard, you want to profit. It seems unfair to Bikram that people who did not contribute to his idea are now teaching it at ten bucks a head, but that idea of “fair” is based on a construction of copyright law no one ever intended. We agree that Bikram yoga is a fantastic idea. Do we really want to prevent the spread of that idea so that Bikram can be ultra-rich instead of just rich? Does Bikram want to spend his time coordinating with lawyers and testifying in court rather than showing people how to get all stretchy and strong?

Letting Bikram be the only person who can act on his idea even after other people know about it might be the most fair thing we can do for him, but it is a crappy thing to do to society. Copyright law was created to ensure that people profit from their ideas, but that is a means, not an end. We encourage the manufacture of good ideas because we need them. An idea is not like a sweater or an iPod. An idea is valuable precisely because it can be replicated and built upon for free. Maybe we will have to agree that some good things in our culture cannot be converted to money, and maybe the people who come up with them will have to settle for other kinds of compensation.

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  1. Seems weird to argue that the line delineating Birkam yoga from some hot yoga variation is blurry, and then conclude by striking a sharp one between ideas and an Ipod. An Ipod is just an arrangement of several technical poses.

  2. I completely disagree, an ipod is simply an mp3 player, which is simply a portable music player, which is simply a battery powered stereo you can carry. We need to stop focusing on the obvious evolution of a shared idea (bikram, ipod) as opposed to an original idea or a single work of art (The Sun Also Rises).

  3. Interestingly, in samba de gafieira, the only truly lovely series of physical gestures that I know of (also from Brazil), no one has ever tried to claim copyright. (I just spend a weekend studying with one of its creators, and helped him beg for a free cocktail at the festival’s bar.)

    In writing, copyright is more established. I can copy the ideas in Combat! (hopefully with attribution) but as soon as I copy the words I’m in trouble. Fighting techniques or movements are less established as copyright issues, right? Combat! doesn’t seem to have done much real research on this or have much to add, but it would be an interesting issue. Where IS that line?

  4. Perhaps the line is in the eye of the beholder.

    Who invented the tennis backhand; and should his/her family get royalties? Was the first person to use it in tennis infringing on the invention of the first domestic abuser?

  5. It’s true! Yoga’s huge presence in our world today IS a direct result of Bikram Choudhury’s influence and hard work, and no doubt he has every right to claim “Hot Yoga” as his own he is a misdirected idiot. For 5 years I blamed everyone else around him for robbing me of the last good years I had to try to eek out a career for myself. It’s a loss for everyone. I understand his intention behind copyrighting his sequence. He has every right. I think its because he wants it to work for as many people as possible-SAFELY for example. His name is on it. He too could be sued etc. But the way he goes about it is like a stupid 6 year old. He prides himself on being good at hiding his true feelings…and so now especially seeing him on the stand giving testimony on Nightline a few weeks ago-his soul looks old and broken. Such a shame. The yoga saved my life as miraculously as a magic wand, and yet the PETTY low, misguided hatred from “the community” tortured me for 5 years (watch how Bikram HQ stands by while Bikram teachers Donna Trantham and Thailand’s Moo ambush the studio they SOLD me in 2010 for $6000. No one wanted the studio because it made so little money, so they brought me down knowing I had nothing, Gave me a loan, and allowed me to work off the amount (after doubling the asking price), which I did. I was 48 years old and had NOTHING so opted to go for it-and they used my financial vulnerability against me a year later when they had a local woman cop friend of their’s stand by while a locksmith chnaged MY locks. I begged the cop that she was putting me out on the street….this was COMPLETELY illegal. Evey lawyer I spoke with told me I had a case…but what would I pay with? I still have a year left on the statute of limitations-so if any good samaritan’s out there would be so inclined….I half dead now anyone, can barely walk after a bad fall, body is rotting , depression of the charts…..when I went to Bikram’s training it was my hope to simply make work (that I loved) for myself, maybe own a studio, maybe meet a boy, maybe have a baby, adopt, I just wanted to the basics and even in my later years was holding on after a rough life….and Bikram whipped out his dick laughing as he pissed all over my dreams, surrounded by all his whores and other materialistic self important haters….yoga my ass. Omg it kills me. It has killed me.

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