Can You Copyright Yoga?

Another day, another news story about Bikram Choudhury.  This time he’s making waves for his ongoing quest to copyright or patent the sequence of 26 poses practiced in “Bikram yoga”.  Personal feelings about the guru aside, can you copyright yoga?

The nation of India says NO!

They are putting the final touches on a database that catalogs 1,300 different yoga poses. The goal is that “once the database is up online, patent offices across the world will have a reference point to check on everytime a yoga guru claims patent on a particluar `asana’.”

Three cheers for India!  However, the article gets a couple of things confused, so before we celebrate Open Source Yoga with many Sun Salutations, let’s clarify a couple things.

The article uses the terms copyright and patent interchangeably.  The two are not the same thing.  Let’s repeat that: copyright and patent are NOT the same.  According to

Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be […]

So by its very history and definition, yoga, yoga poses and sequences of yoga poses cannot be copyrighted or patented.    Though this does touch on the age old debate of “what is yoga?” Is it a religion? A method of exercise? A spiritual practice? An idea? An invention? A discovery?

Even if someone (Choudhury, I’m looking at YOU)  DID succeed in copyrighting yoga, the multitude of ways it’s practiced and taught fall squarely in the camp of “fair use.”

Rather than find your own government guru, here’s a refresher:

“Section 107 (of US Copyright Law) contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:
1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

26 poses out of 1300 is absolutely fair use … if one was to go so far as to try and obtain some form of legally binding agreement to prevent anyone else using, teaching or practicing that same sequence without prior acknowledgment and monetary compensation.  Seriously??  Don’t make the Baby Buddha cry.

“But this is all in the US!” you might say.  “What about India?”  The U.S. and India have a very close relationship when it comes to copyright and patent law. According to circular International Copyright Relations of the United States published by the US copyright office in 2010, India has participated and signed on all the major agreements of the last 83 years. (See page 8 of the report.)

So whether you practice a Power Yoga, Forrest Yoga, Jivamukti, Prana Flow, Prana Power, Bikram or Kripalu … it’s all yoga.  Maybe it can be trademarked, but it can’t be copyrighted or patented.




One response to “Can You Copyright Yoga?

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