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A copyright official’s opinion that yoga poses can’t be copyrighted will likely change yoga guru Bikram Choudhury’s litigation posture in three copyright cases against yoga studios and their owners. On Dec. 9, the defendants in Bikram’s Yoga College of India LP v. Yoga to the People Inc., a case in the Central District of California, filed an answer that referenced a copyright official’s e-mail. The defendants’ answer made reference to a Dec. 7 e-mail from the U.S. Copyright Office’s acting chief of the performing arts division, Laura Lee Fischer, to a lawyer for the defendants. In the e-mail, Fischer stated that the agency has determined that exercises, including yoga exercises, “do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography.” In September, Bikram’s Yoga and founding partner Choudhury sued Yoga to the People and its owner, Gregory Gumucio, a former certified Bikram Yoga teacher. The legal claims include copyright infringement; trademark infringement; false designation of origin associating Yoga to the People with Bikram; dilution of Bikram’s intellectual property; unfair competition; unfair business practices; breach of contract; and inducing breach of contract. Bikram’s Yoga also has filed two similar cases against other yoga studios and their owners: one against Evolation Yoga LLC, filed in July and one against Gabrielle Raiz, filed in September. In addition to their answer, the defendants filed counterclaims asking the court to declare that both the Choudhury Yoga sequence and the specific Bikram “dialogue” used during classes are incapable of receiving copyright protection. The defendants are also seeking a declaratory judgment that the teacher training agreements between Bikram’s Yoga College of India and prospective students are unlawful noncompete agreements. The counterclaims also assert unfair competition claims against the plaintiffs. The defendants asked the court to enjoin the plaintiffs from asserting any copyright interest in the Choudhury Yoga Sequence or the dialogue and from enforcing the teacher training agreements. They also seek attorney fees, costs, and expenses. William Fisher, a Harvard Law School intellectual property professor and one of the lawyers for Yoga to the People, said copyright law “quite explicitly forbids copyrights for procedures, systems and methods of operation,” particularly when they implicate health. The Copyright Office also ruled that Bikram’s yoga poses were not dance after a formal review. “It’s pretty clear cut,” Fisher said. Fisher also said there’s no genuine trademark dispute because Yoga to the People doesn’t use the phrase “Bikram.” As for the contract claims, Fisher said Gumucio never signed an agreement limiting the circumstances under which he’d teach Bikram yoga because Bikram wasn’t using such agreements at the time. Fisher also said Gumucio has an “unqualified diploma signed by Bikram, which provides him all rights and privileges to provide classes in this form of yoga.” “Even if Bikram were to have a copyright, he has expressly granted Greg a license to provide instruction,” Fisher said. Robert Gilchrest, a lawyer at Silverman Sclar Shin & Byrne in Los Angeles, represents Bikram Yoga and its founder Choudhury in the California federal cases. He said, “The issues raised in the counterclaim rehash issues raised in previous litigation.” “We will, once again, address those issues firmly and set the record straight as to why Bikram Choudhury and Greg Gumucio parted ways in the formal response to the counterclaim,” said Gilchrest in an e-mailed statement Gilchrest also called the e-mail referenced in the defendants’ answer “inconsequential fodder” that “addresses future registrations of exercise routines, not simply yoga. So, in the future, those like Jane Fonda, Cindy Crawford, Billy Blank and even the NY City Ballet (“The Complete Workout”) apparently will have difficulties with the US Copyright Office.” Just because the copyright office gives you a copyright doesn’t mean you win in court, said Enrico Schaefer, a founding partner of Traverse Legal in Traverse City, Mich. Schaefer represents three defendants on the Raiz case: Yen Yoga & Fitness LLC, its owner Paul Sutherland and an instructor, Kate Evans. “Whether or not it’s a valid copyright is [an issue] for the courts,” Schaefer said. “It strengthens our defense and may even make their case insurmountable,” Schaefer said. “We always felt very good about our defense and obviously now we feel even better.” Sheri Qualters can be contacted at [email protected].

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