• Does Bikram Yoga’s Founder Need to Learn to Be More Flexible?
  • March 20, 2012 | Authors: L. Robert Batterman; Robert E. Freeman; Howard L. Ganz; Joseph M. Leccese; Jonathan H. Oram; Howard Z. Robbins; Bradley I. Ruskin
  • Law Firm: Proskauer Rose LLP - New York Office
  • Yoga is hot these days - really hot, as in, taught in a room heated to a minimum of one hundred and five degrees, in the case of the sequence known as “Bikram Yoga,” in which its founder, Bikram Choudhury, claims proprietary rights. In September 2011, Choudhury filed suit alleging that his former pupil, Gregory Gumucio, the founder of New York-based Yoga to the People Inc. (“YTTP”), breached a license agreement and infringed Choudhury’s copyright and trademark rights by teaching Choudhury’s proprietary yoga system.

    According to the complaint, since 1971 Choudhury has promoted his “Bikram Yoga” sequence, consisting of 2 breathing exercises and 26 postures, taught under a protocol that, among other things, requires a heated room. As students move through the guided yoga session, certain phrases are said by the instructor at appointed times. Since 1978, Choudhury has issued licenses to instructors who wish to teach Bikram Yoga.

    The complaint further alleges that Gumucio attended one of Choudhury’s teaching courses in 1996, and received a limited license to teach Bikram Yoga according to various copyright guidelines set out by Choudhury. Choudhury alleges that Gumucio offered a class entitled “Traditional Hot Yoga” at YTTP, thereby breaching the license agreement and infringing Choudhury’s trademark, copyright, and other proprietary rights. Choudhury goes so far as to refer to YTTP as the Yoga equivalent of the Napster file-sharing system, suggesting that even Gumucio himself has made that comparison.

    In his answer to Choudhury’s lawsuit, Gumucio claims, among other things, that the Bikram Yoga sequence does not qualify for copyright protection. Gumucio cited a letter written by the U.S. Copyright Office’s Performing Arts Division Acting Chief, Laura Lee Fischer, confirming that exercises, including yoga sequences, do not qualify as protectable choreography. Gumucio also alleges that in 2002 the Copyright Office denied Choudhury’s application for copyright of his yoga sequence. In short, the Copyright Office believes that copyright protection of yoga sequences is too much of a stretch.

    The 2002 denial of his application notwithstanding, Choudhury has a history of sending cease and desist letters to yoga instructors he feels have infringed on his intellectual property. This is also not the first lawsuit involving the copyrightability of Bikram Yoga. In 2003, a group of Yoga instructors created Open Source Yoga Unity (“OSYU”) in order to challenge what they perceived as the privatization of yoga by Choudhury. OSYU sued Bikram in federal court, challenging his interpretation of copyright law. Their motion for summary judgment on the issue of copyrightability was denied, with the court intimating that Chouhury’s yoga sequence was entitled to copyright protection. The case was settled in 2005.

    In addition to the Gumucio lawsuit and the OSYU action, Bikram also has two copyright infringement actions against yoga instructors pending in California federal court, Bikram’s Yoga College of India L.P. v. Raiz, No. 11-cv-7377 (C.D. Cal. filed Sept. 7, 2011), and Bikrams Yoga College of India L.P. v. Evolation Yoga LLC., No. 11- cv-05506 (C.D. Cal. filed July 1, 2011.

    Although Choudry’s copyright claims against YTTP appear to be the main event in this litigation, if Choudhury loses on the issue of copyrightability, he still has claims of trademark infringement and breach of the license agreement. For now, the case is tied up like a yogi in eagle pose.

    Namaste.