Sunday, March 20, 2016

Copyright Law and Choreography: From The Lawnmower Dance To Bikram Yoga


Can copyright law stop dance routines? The Ninth Circuit says no!  In Bikram's Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolation Yoga, LLC., 803 F.3d 1032 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2015), the Ninth Circuit rejected the Bikram's Yoga College's attempt to stop its former students from using the Bikram method of using a series 26 yoga poses in a 105-degree-heated studio.   Bikram Choudhury wrote a book describing his method in 1979 and made a claim to copyright in the book.   In 2002, the copyright registration was supplemented to claim the "compilation of exercises" contained in the 1979 book.   The 1979 book contained descriptions, photos and drawings of the exercises.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that Bikram's sequence of exercises was not copyrightable because it was an unprotectible idea or process and thus not the proper subject of copyright law.  Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act expressly excludes "any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodies in such work."

Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act codified a copyright law doctrine known as the "idea/expression dichotomy".  That is, "every idea, theory and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication" - even though copyright law protects the author's original contributions to the expression of the idea.

Here, Bikram sought protection of a useful, beneficial healing process that he described as a "system". The difference between copyright law and patent law is that patents may protect useful processes for limited times - copyright law does not.  As the court observed:  "Consumers would have little reason to buy Choudhury's book if Choudhury held a monopoly on the practice of the very activity that he sought to popularize."  The court drew analogies to the lack of copyright in recipes, bookkeeping methods, or in rules for competitive activities.

The Ninth Circuit further rejected Bikram's claims of a compilation or choreographic copyrights.  With respect to choreography, the court could not find a clear definition, but found that it had to be something more than dance steps or useful routines and pointed out that our days are filled with routinized physical movements that cannot be copyrighted but that have become dance routines, such as mowing the lawn or shaking a Polaroid picture.  The court's decision links to the "How To Do The Lawnmower Dance"  Youtube dance routine embedded at the beginning of this blog post.

The first chapter of my book, Copyright Litigation Handbook deals with the scope of copyright law's coverage. Copyrightability is an important issue and one of the first to be raised in a copyright litigation, usually on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The Bikram case went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals following the district court granting the defendant's motion for summary judgment for copyright infringement pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Visit here to see the table of contents.

You can watch the oral argument below, you might enjoy the exchange over how yoga routines are different from jellyfish sculptures.

 Copyright law, fine art and navigating the courts. All practice, no theory.Copyright Litigation Handbook (Thomson Reuters Westlaw 2015-2016) by Raymond J. Dowd
 Copyright Litigation Handbook on Westlaw

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