August 1, 2003  ·  Lessig

So here’s an interesting struggle in a corner of creative space you might not expect it: Open Source Yoga. The attempt to resist the control of copyright over Yoga (yes, really) is described here.

Apparently these yoga people don’t realize that if yoga could only be propertized, and then sold to the highest bidder, it would be cared for, and protected. As Mr. Valenti has observed, without copyright protection, yoga is an orphan. But with perfect and perpetual copyright protection, it could be auctioned to the entity that could develop it best, and support its growth most strongly. Maybe Gold Gym could buy it, or MTV. Or maybe Mickey could take up yoga, after Disney bought yoga. See [a very interesting story in the LA Times from July 23 about the revival of Mickey's image that I can't link to because it is in a paid archive and Dave Winer hasn't solved this problem yet]. The possibilities are endless.

  • Tom Barger

    Full page ads in LA Times yesterday for Robinson’s May Co department store. The title is “Mickey and Mini’s”

    This is a real sledgehammer approach, linking rock singers and body endorsements. The marketing guys at Disney are tooting their own horn, justifying their achievements as getting back to the exciting graphic potentials of the original rodent style of Steamboat Willie. I suggest its time to counter this and reprise the essays on Walt’s orginal adaption or plagiarism of Steamboat Willie.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    The story can be found at:

    M-I-C-K-E-Y: The leader of the brand,0,3307638.story

  • Jack Phelps

    The idea that an aeon-old art will be much improved by a corporation with no financial incentive to improve something it has total control over is one of the most absurd propositions I have heard in quite some time.

  • Ryan Baron

    I agree with the comment above. The idea that yoga could or should be propertized is appalling. I would hope that some of those fighting for open source could lend their pro bono efforts to a cause such as this.

  • joe

    Bikram is one of many types of physical yoga. The asanas are facts… that is your body is positioned one way and you are breathing deeply through your nostrils. The description, drawings and instruction techniques embodied in texts can be copyrighted but the positions themselves are states of body and mind that have been in the public domain before copyright was created to make people rich. In my opinion, other types of yoga are superior to the faddish Bikram school (hint: just try Iyengar or Astanga yoga)… this is just another reason to not do Bikram.

  • Timothy Phillips

    Thanks to Seth for pointing out the article on Disney’s plans for Mickey Mouse’s 75th birthday.

    Disney shouldn’t have Mickey’s 75th all to itself. Perhaps whenever Disney issues a press release on the topic, the EFF could issue a press release reminding the newspapers that this was the year that the copyright in “Steamboat Willie” would have expired but for the CTEA. They might also remind the press that Disney might not have fully complied with copyright formalities when it issued early Mickey Mouse Club materials, as pointed out by Vanpelt (1999):

    [B]y 1932, U.S. membership in the Mickey Mouse Club had reached one million. Disney sold a line of club materials to the theater operators for use in the Mickey Mouse Club meetings held at the theaters. These materials included Mickey Mouse Club applications, membership cards, and birthday cards, as well as the “Official Bulletin of the Mickey Mouse Club” among other merchandise. Each item depicted an image of Mickey Mouse, but none contained a copyright notice.
    &nbsp&nbsp–Vanpelt (1999), section 2.

  • Kirk Ernest

    I’m new to reading this blog… This is sarcasm correct?

  • paul

    I think this is a great deal. After all, capitalism and ownership of ideas is the solution to every problem, right? Take North Korea, for example. Nuclear weapons were invented by the US Government, and therefore must be US intellectual property. Instead of negotiating with the North Koreans, we should just sue them for patent infringement. Or copyright. Whatever. (You can tell I’m not a lawyer.) Send Jack Valenti and the RIAA to North Korea. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea.)

  • Anonymous

    background information

    Part of the article is subscriber-only, but the public part is informative.

  • James P. Harrison

    Greetings – I am THE (one, only, sole, alone, lonely and out on the ice flow and needing company) attorney for Open Source Yoga Unity – Yoga copyrighting sounds funny and it is a great vehicle to start off into a jag on the obsurdity of copyright abuse – but this is a real case. Bikram Choudhury is wealthy and has hired one of this nation’s ten largest firms ( to represent him on this matter and to secure copyright protection of a yoga sequence. He is saying that you can’t teach my yoga unless you pay me – I own it. We disagree. We have asked a Federal Judge, Maria Elena James (San Francisco), for declaratory relief on the copyright issue. A response to our complaint is due from Bikram within 30 days. The Judge doesn’t have to take the case unless she sees a “ripe case and controversy.” Please help OSYU by writing the Judge urging her to hear the case (see for pleadings).

    US District Court – Clerk’s Office
    RE: OSYU v. Bikram Choudhury, Case No. C 03-03182
    450 Golden Gate Ave.
    16th Floor, Room 1111
    San Francisco, CA 94102

    The clerks DOES NOT want long legal arguments at this point they want only communication that this is an important issue and that people care. Later – if you want to file an amicus brief – feel free.

    I wish copyrighting yoga was as funny as it sounds – Jim Harrison – Sacramento, CA.

  • http://yogaunity James P.Harrison

    Ok – OK – The clerks DO NOT want long legal arguments at this point. They want only communication that this is an important issue and that people care.

    Friday from hell and it’s hot here.
    Jim Harrison – Sacramento

  • Trevor Hill

    I’m sure for many many years yoga techniques were secrets passed from master to student, just like martial arts elsewhere. Maybe some techniques were made public, but others, you can be sure, are still secret. Their discoverers chose not to make them public. So pursuits such as these have never been fully open and free. In fact, in many cases the versions of martial arts that we see in the U.S. were released against the will of older teachers.

    I don’t know whether Bikram has developed anything novel in its yoga style, and if not, it shouldn’t have protections; obviously one cannot copyright something that’s been public for a long period of time. But why shouldn’t they be able to have some special rights to teaching a new technique or variety of yoga that they’ve developed themselves? Should we wrest it from them and hold it aloft and say “Look, everyone! It’s now free for all!”?

    If so, maybe next time it will be secret. Just like the old days. ;)

  • James P. Harrison

    Trevor – Regarding your question of “why shouldn�t they be able to have some special rights to teaching a new technique or variety of yoga that they�ve developed themselves?” First, none of Bikram’s positions are new – he just picked 26 out of something like 80 classic hatha yoga positions and put them in a sequence. He now claims that if you incorporate even a small number of that sequence into your instruction without his permission – you violate his copyright. Also, he claims that if you change his sequence by adding or removing positions, or by adding music or meditation, you have violated his copyright. What is wrong with this is that the yoga industry then gets wrapped up in copyright litigation, everyone feels that they have to file for a copyright just to contiue what they are doing and the creative development of yoga suffers. Hence the Open Source reference.

    They saw Bikram coming from before he was born.

    “Through regular publication of the work of the Institute, these Indian contributions will reach the whole world. They will become public property. No patents will ever be taken. The spirit of our national culture demands that we should forever be free from the desecration of utilizing knowledge only for personal gain. It is my further wish that the facilities of this Institute be available, so far as possible, to workers from all countries. In this I am attempting to carry on the traditions of my country. As far back as twenty-five centuries, India welcomed to its ancient universities… scholars from all parts of the world.”
    -Autobiography of a Yogi, published 1946, page 81, from a speech given by J.C. Bose at the dedication of an Indian physiology/philosophy Institute

  • Kurt

    Trevor – Even if Bikram had invented a new yoga pose, using that pose would not be an infringment of copyright. Copyright, at least in the US, applies only to tangible, fixed media. Books, sound recordings, movies, etc.

    You *might* be able to make a patent arguement under the recent US “business methods” patent decision, but (as far as I know) Bikram has not filed a patent claim.

    Also, imagine if Tiger Woods patented his golf swing, wrestlers patented their “signature moves”, baseball had patented pitches, etc. “I’m sorry, you can’t use that pitch against us. Only Yankee pitchers are allowed to throw that pitch.”

    That way lies madness.

  • Anonymous

    I see. So Bikram is just trying to copyright a sequence of moves. I would think that this is not really fit for copyright… As was suggested, maybe it could be patented if it were a useful and novel sequence of moves that achieved something better than just doing them in a different order… But I seriously doubt that is the case.

    It seems like he should be able to have trademarks on his move sequences, and be able to advertize with them, etc, but he shouldn’t be able to prevent anyone else from actually performing that sequence. He _should_ be able to prevent anyone else from advertising using his trademarks though… Of course, if ‘Bikram’ is a previously existing name, he would have to think of a different trademark for his sequence… Maybe ‘SupaBikramation’. ;)

    I do think that if someone invents a new physical practice, for instance something like ‘Pilates’, which has novel benefits, they should be able to protect it though. You certainly shouldn’t be able to appropriate an ancient art and protect it for yourself though.

  • Carol Stall

    I am a yoga teacher and teach students learning to become yoga teachers. I am interested in assisting in spreading the word about this issue but my computer is unable to access or any of the links to it when I did a google search. Your link is the only one working from the google search.

    Any ideas? I would like to distribute this information to my entire mailing list.

    Thanks, and Namaste,
    Carol Stall