By Caitlin Lee Dempsey
Traditional knowledge encompasses and protects the unauthorized use of images, music, and choreography, among other categories, and has become a hot topic among copyright and intellectual property lawyers. Yoga exemplifies the current controversy, which concerns Bikram Choudhury's copyrighted series of 26 yoga poses, famously to be known as "Bikram Yoga", which was registered in 2007. Choudhury designed a 9-week intensive course for aspiring Bikram Yoga teachers, encouraging them to help teach others how powerful and healing yoga may be - as long as they followed his rules (i.e. strict text, mirrors and carpets in the studio, and specific temperature, among others).
However, what happens when one of Bikram's former students opens a studio that almost follows his precise guidelines, to the former student's own benefit? Recently, Choudhury faced just that, and filed eight causes of action against the founder of Yoga to the People, Gregory Gumicio. The complaint alleged copyright infringement, trademark infringement, false delegation of origin, dilution, unfair competition, unfair business practices, breach of contract and inducing breach of contract. Choudhury's claims varied from injunction to over $1,000,000 for each allegation. (http://www.bikramyoga.com/AffiliatedStudioUpdates_9-28-11.php)
Gumicio, who entered into an agreement restricting his use of "Bikram Yoga" when he successfully completed Bikram's course, did not claim to be offering Bikram Yoga. He responded to the allegations with yogatruth.org, and argued that while copyright is limited to original works and systems, which is the category under which yoga would fall, yoga does not constitute "choreography" in the traditional sense of the word, and therefore cannot be copyrighted. While the U.S. Copyright Office has permitted yoga poses to be registered in the past, regulators recently reviewed the legislative history of copyright law and decided that exercise, such as yoga, does not "constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography." (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/tfisher/Yoga/FischerLetter.jpg)
Moreover, Gumicio has a different take on the agreement he signed upon completion of the course. The diploma says that he "is hereby granted rights and privileges to teach Birkam's Basic Yoga System", which Gumicio does not believe includes the drastic limitations that Choudhury is claiming.
This is not the first case Bikram has taken to court on the matter. Prior suits ended with private settlements, with the defendants agreeing not to use Choudhury's name. Choudhury also brought suit against Evolution Yoga and Yen Yoga with similar claims. Moreover, Choudhury has an ongoing battle with Take Back Yoga of the American Hindu Foundation, which demands that Yoga's Hindu Philosophy remains alive.