Yoga Lawsuit Taps Open-Source Spirit

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 03-26-2005
It's hard to imagine that yoga, the 5,000-year-old discipline of exercise, diet and meditation, would have anything in common with the modern software industry.

But a group of loosely affiliated yoga instructors based in California have embraced the philosophy of the open-source software movement in fighting a campaign by a richly successful yoga master to use copyright law to bar competitors from practicing any part of his exercise routines without authorization.

India-born Bikram Choudhury has gained rock-star status in the clannish world of yoga, which has long been taught by independent local practitioners who train relatively small groups of dedicated yoga aficionados in towns and cities across the country.

But the yoga community has also grown steadily in the United States, where as many as 16.5 million fitness-conscious people practice the discipline, according to Yoga Journal.

Based in the always trend-conscious Los Angeles area, Choudhury has accumulated wealth and a large following with his style of yoga training, in which he leads practitioners in 26 yoga positions and breathing exercises in rooms heated to sweltering temperatures.

Recognizing the value of this lucrative practice, Choudhury did what many smart businesspeople and software-industry entrepreneurs have done: He protected his intellectual-property rights by declaring on his Web site in February, 2003, that his yoga routine, called "Bikram's Basic Yoga System" or simply "Bikram Yoga" was copyrighted and trademarked.

With the copyrights in hand and a couple of books to his credit, Bikram has focused on building a network of instructors trained and licensed to teach his style, which is also known as "hot yoga" because of its reliance on heated training studios to enhance the conditioning effect of the exercises.

Choudhury also follows software industry practice in the way he requires authorized instructors to be re-certified each year, in the same way that software companies require annual fees to certify individuals as qualified to maintain certain network servers or operating systems.

Choudhury has also been aggressive in defending his copyrights, sending lawyerly cease-and-desist letters to yoga instructors who have the temerity to teach variations of his yoga routine in heated rooms.

The letters and threats of lawsuits prompted a group of yoga instructors to organize themselves in early 2003 as Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU), an organization with the expressed purpose of opposing "the litigious position Bikram Choudhury is taking against the Yoga community by his attempted enforcement of copyright protection."

The group currently consists of a nine-member board of directors and about 25 other "loosely affiliated" yoga instructors and practitioners, according to the group's lawyer, James Harrison of Sacramento, Calif.

In July 2003, the group filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, hard by Silicon Valley, where intellectual property lawyers are nearly as numerous as movie stars in Beverly Hills, Calif., Choudhury's home turf.

OSYU in essence is asking the court to rule that Choudhury's copyright claims are unenforceable because they are based on yoga positions and practices that have been in use for literally thousands of years and thus are in the public domain, Harrison said. The group has adopted that mantra of the open source software movement that any technology or practice that is in the public domain can be freely used, Harrison said.

OSYU won the opening round of the litigation in April 2004 when Judge Phyllis Hamilton rejected the motion of Choudhury's attorney that the case should be dismissed because OSYU lacked the legal standing to pursue its lawsuit.

Both sides are scheduled to meet Monday to try to negotiate a settlement before the case goes to trial, Harrison said. He declined to comment on the prospects of a settlement.

Choudhury's lawyer, Susan Hollander with the firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in Palo Alto, Calif., did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment on the case.

Harrison expressed confidence that OSYU had a strong case to counter Choudhury's copyright claims.

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.

If the settlement negotiations fail it will be up to the court to decide whether Choudhury's copyright claims are an exercise in futility.