The U.S. Copyright Office has issued a policy document explaining why yoga poses are not copyrightable. Not least, because they’ve been in the public domain for centuries, if not millennia. And because they are neither dramatic works nor choreographic works, which are two types of creative work that can be copyrighted. They are functional works — i.e., they are used not primarily as artistic expression, but to improve your health — and so they are outside the domain of copyright, which does not protect functional works. Perhaps a truly new yoga pose might be patentable, but we haven’t seen one of those in a long long while.
For much the same reason, the Copyright Office states that a sequence of yoga poses is also not copyrightable.
At this point, you may be asking “why did the Copyright Office bother telling us this?” Or, alternatively, “Who on earth would try to copyright a yoga pose?” Well, that’s exactly what the dude pictured at the upper left tried to do. He’s Bikram Choudhury, yoga zillionaire, owner of a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and a serial copyright litigator. As Kal and I wrote in a previous post on the Freakonomics blog, Bikram has claimed a copyright in his Bikram Yoga classes, wherein students enter a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to perform a set of 26 traditional poses and two breathing exercises. And he’s sued a bunch of competitors offering similar hot-yoga programs.
Well, the Copyright Office’s policy statement should put a stop to Bikram’s antics. Mind you I said “should”, not “will”. Because although the Copyright Office has this one right, courts have been known to ignore them. And Bikram is, if nothing else, persistent.