As yoga continues to attract adherents in the United States — both for its physical as well as spiritual benefits —  notions of intellectual property are quickly becoming enmeshed with this millennia-old tradition.

Is it possible to trademark or copyright yoga under the intellectual property laws?

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The closest anyone has come to claiming elements of yoga as intellectual property is Bikram Choudhury, who has aggressively policed his purported trademark and copyright rights in his style of yoga known as “Bikram Yoga.”

In the 2005 case Open Source Yoga Unity v. Choudhury, a federal court in California described how Choudhury first sought copyright protection for Bikram Yoga in 1979 and then again 2002. Choudhury has also registered the trademarks BIKRAM YOGA, BIKRAM’S BEGINNING YOGA CASS, BIKRAM’S YOGA COLLEGE OF INDIA, and SPINAL TWIST DESIGN.

Choudhury claimed that while yoga postures (or “asanas”) were in the public domain, his particular sequence of those asanas in a particular way were entitled to “compilation” protection under the copyright laws.

The court observed that, “while recognizing and even agreeing that application of the law of compilations to yoga asanas appears to violate the spirit of yoga, [it was] unable to locate any authority that precludes such application.” Therefore, copyright protection for the specific yoga sequence was theoretically available.

Choudhury’s victory might have been short lived. In a December 9, 2011 letter to the organization “Yoga To The People,” the United States Copyright Office stated that it was reversing its earlier position that the selection and ordering of yoga sequences could be copyrighted.

Instead, the Copyright Office now takes the position that “exercises, including yoga exercises, do not constitute the subject matter Congress intended to protect as choreography.

“Thus, [the Copyright Office] will not register such exercises (including yoga movements), whether described as exercises or as selection and ordering of movements.”

Here are some safe conclusions with regard to intellectual property and yoga:

  • Names of yoga studios can be protected under trademark law but the name has to be distinctive. “Bikram Yoga” is distinctive, as there is no tradition of “Bikram” in yoga philosophy, and is just Bikram Choudhury’s first name. At the other end of the spectrum are phrases like “Raja Yoga,” “Hatha Yoga” and “Vinyasa Yoga,” which are terms that have been used to describe philosophies of yoga for hundreds of years (if not longer), and which certainly could not be trademarked. Names likely not protected also include things like “Downward Dog Yoga”, “Nirvana Yoga” or “India Yoga,” all of which are too descriptive of basic elements of yoga.  See T.M.E.P. § 1209.01(b) (“A mark is considered merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the specific goods or services.”).
  • Specific postures of yoga — “downward dog,” “tree pose,” “boat pose,” etc. — cannot be trademarked. However, someone who claims a series of new postures may be able to trademark those names, depending on the circumstances and whether those postures are associated with a new type of yoga.
  • Under the new Copyright Office policy cited above, copyright protection appears totally unavailable for yoga asanas, even to a particular sequencing of yoga asanas as a “compilation” copyright.
  • Someone who writes a book about yoga is entitled to copyright protection over that new creative work, but it goes without saying (or perhaps needs repeating) that the ideas and teachings of yoga, by themselves, cannot be copyrighted.

An early chronicler of the practice of yoga, Patanjali, wrote at least 2000 years ago that, “Yoga is the cessation of the mind.”

A very different philosophy than one would associate with intellectual property, at the very least!

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