yoga

​Bikram Yoga Can’t Be Copyrighted. Neither Should APIs.

“Interoperability” isn’t quite the right word for why other yoga studies used the Bikram yoga Sequence, but the reasoning is similar.

Sarah Jeong

Sarah Jeong

Photo: SOMBILON PHOTOGRAPHY/Flickr

The guy who "invented" Bikram yoga—also known as hot yoga—is very, very litigious. When rival yoga studios offer hot yoga, they get sued—on copyright grounds. On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Bikram yoga isn't copyrightable, because it's an idea, rather than an expression.

It seems straightforward enough. The Copyright Act doesn't cover anything that's an "idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery," because copyright is supposed to extend to creative expressions, not to ideas. So you can't copyright a historical fact, an algorithm, or a sequence of body postures meant to promote your health.

But weirdly enough, just last year, there was an appeals court decision on a case also coming from California, about whether the "structure, sequence, and organization" of a system was copyrightable. The Federal Circuit ruled in Oracle v. Google that the Java API could have copyright attached to it.

In Bikram's Yoga College v. Evolation Yoga, the work at issue is called "the Sequence"—it's a series of yoga postures. Although the Sequence is aesthetically pleasing, it's nonetheless utilitarian. The Sequence is carried out because of the health benefits.

It's not just that it's a little silly to think about it, it's also bad policy

And it doesn't matter that a yoga sequence could easily be structured, sequenced, or organized in a different way. "Though it may be one of many possible yoga sequences capable of attaining similar results, the Sequence is nevertheless a process and is therefore ineligible for copyright protection," says the Ninth Circuit.

An application programming interface (API) is something like a dictionary. John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge wrote in 2012, "Maybe the best way for a non-coder to understand this is to think of common APIs as being like proverbs—shorthand ways of communicating particular ideas. Just knowing 'English' is not enough to understand what 'A stitch in time saves nine' means—you need to have loaded the Ben Franklin API. Similarly, 'Java' itself is much less useful without implementing certain common APIs."

In Oracle v. Google, Google used the Java APIs—with their structure, sequence, and organization—to make it easy for existing Java code to run on Android. In other words, they used the APIs for interoperability purposes.

"Interoperability" isn't quite the right word for why other yoga studies used the Bikram yoga Sequence, but the reasoning is similar. The Ninth Circuit opinion says, "Consumers would have little reason to buy Choudhury's book if Choudhury held a monopoly on the practice of the very activity he sough to popularize. Rather than 'stimulat[ing] artistic creativity for the general public good,' copyright protection for the Sequence would prevent the public from engaging with Choudhury's idea and building upon it."

The Ninth Circuit panel agreed unanimously that Bikram yoga shouldn't be copyrighted. It's not just that it's a little silly to think about it, it's also bad policy. A corporate monopoly on a sequence for a functional purpose has a negative impact on the rest of society.

The Ninth Circuit never got to hear Oracle v. Google, because for strange procedural reasons, the case went up to the Federal Circuit instead. Since the Supreme Court declined to hear it this year, that decision remains unchallenged. It's a little more intuitive as to why copyrighting yoga is silly, as opposed to copyrighting APIs—after all, most of us don't walk by a park everyday and see a group of moms accessing APIs in the late afternoon.

But Oracle v. Google is just as dumb as copyrighting yoga, if not more. It's too bad the appeals court didn't see it that way.