Hold That Pose: Federal Judge Rules That Bikram Yoga Cannot Be Copyrighted
Quietly, after more than ten years of contentious lawsuits, Bikram Choudhury's copyright on the specific sequence of Bikram yoga has been overruled by the federal court. For the past year Bikram and his lawyers, the media, and the yoga community, have been focused on the legal warfare involving Greg Gumucio and Yoga to the People, a case that settled at the beginning of this month. At any given time the yoga guru has several lawsuits simmering on the back burner, and it was one of these cases which suddenly caught fire. On Friday, December 14, Mark Drost's motion for partial summary judgement was granted and marked the first time a court has definitively stated that the actual practice of Bikram yoga cannot be protected by copyright law.
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In early July 2011, Mark Drost, a Bikram yoga teacher who had been running Evolation Yoga for two and half years, received a letter informing him that his former teacher (and friend) was suing him for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair business practices. This letter was very similar to the one Greg Gumucio would receive two months later, however it included an addendum asserting Drost had misappropriated over $50,000 from the guru and had a record of extortion. The next day he received a letter from the same legal department suggesting settlement. Drost believes this is Bikram's intimidation method--a way of getting studios to agree to his conditions in order to avoid costly legal fees, or outspending them until they cave.
Had the letter attacked merely his business practice and not his personal character, Drost and his wife and business partner Zefea Samson might have more easily agreed to a settlement. However, he says it was the public defamation of his character, which Drost adamantly opposes as untrue, that motivated him to see the case through.
"It was important for us is to protect [the] community and ourselves from that attack," Drost said. "It costs a lot more than money. It is tough to go through, to feel that coming at you, especially from someone you love and respect."
Like Gumucio, Drost spent time under the glow of the guru's good graces. "I was marked from early on," Drost said, explaining Bikram's tendency to choose favorites. Drost had been studying meditation since he was 19, but it wasn't until his mid-thirties that he turned to Bikram yoga as a way to relieve back problems he had since birth. His first wife, Susan, was also a Bikram teacher, and in 2001 he was visiting her at the California teacher training from his home in Florida. Bikram approached him: "He had never even seen a picture of me and he walked right up to me and said, 'Hey, you, Mr. Palm Beach,' he said, 'you come with me, I'm gonna show you my cars.'"
The men developed a quick bond and Drost was wrapped up into the web of the Bikram community, volunteering his time at teacher trainings--even before he had undergone the training himself--attending speaking engagements and traveling with the guru to find new studios and new heating systems for the hot rooms. For nearly eight years Drost lived within the bounds of the Bikram clan.
Being close to the guru had it's drawbacks; it is a covetable post and can illicit a lot of jealousy and fighting among the teachers. "If you get too close to the guru you get burned," Drost said, "And that's been true for thousands of years, not just with Bikram Choudhury." Drost said he has seen the disintegration of relationships between Bikram and all but one of his former protégées.
He also described Bikram's authoritative and rigid nature, from the sequence of his postures to the carpet in a studio to, in Drost's case, the decision to divorce his first wife. "He wants to control his entire world," Drost said. Bikram blatantly told him divorce wasn't an option, and while this created a divide between the two, Drost says it did not sever their relationship. Ultimately, he remarried and said Bikram encouraged him to go out on his own (to create Evolation yoga), and the two continued to speak by phone until 2010.
When I spoke to Bikram last May, he brought up the case with Drost. "They gave up," he told me. "They said, 'Sorry, we know we did something wrong and this is our ignorant stupidity and we don't want to fight.'" Bikram did not signify he had had a close relationship with Drost, but was steadfastly confident, as with Gumucio, that he was in the right and had already won. While Drost agreed that he never wanted to fight, he also never agreed to a final settlement.
"I knew the inside story," Drost said. "It's probably pretty dumb to turn around and sue the person that knows all your dirty laundry."
While Drost's case is still ongoing, Friday's ruling will have a huge impact on the lawsuit. Judge Otis D. Wright, II, based his judgement on the copyright office's revised position this June stating that as a functional system (which promotes physical and mental benefits) yoga postures cannot be registered for copyright.
"There is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises and the compilation of exercises itself," Wright wrote in his judgement. "The former is copyrightable, the latter is not." While the ideas and facts expressed within Bikram's books and videos are still protected under his authorship, Wright decided that the actual practice of those ideas is not protected. As a result Drost, Gumucio, and the numerous other studio owners who have been sued for copyright infringement, are no longer able to be prosecuted under that charge. Other charges, however, may still be viable.
"If you go back in history, it is not like Bikram is the first heavy handed yoga guru," Drost said, "But he may be the last of that breed. Some would say there are no Indians left in yoga, but I think it is actually very powerful."
For Drost, this judgement is representative of a greater shift that is occurring in the yoga community, one detached for the ego of a guru as the focal point of a yoga practice. At his studios he seeks to blend the directness and accessibility of Bikram yoga with philosophy and meditation. However, unlike Gumucio and YTTP, whose discounted classes pose a real competitive threat to other Bikram studios in a given city, Drost's studios are much smaller, serving only 100 people per day. His studios offer a variety of classes, including the Bikram method, but unlike Gumucio, Drost continues to cite Bikram as the lineage of the practice.
As far as Gumucio is concerned, this development in the copyright doesn't change the transition YTTP hot studios are undergoing. In an email he wrote:
"My choice to create distance from Bikram the man, and the yoga associated with him, was and remains a matter of principal."
Drost, meanwhile, still seems uncertain of how he and Bikram transitioned from close friends to merely a plaintiff and defendant, divided by legal council. His wife Zefea suggested it might have to do with the growing success of their business. Drost wonders if he merely didn't work hard enough to maintain a long-distance relationship, but ultimately said he always hoped to keep a relationship with his teacher.
"I miss them, I'll tell you that," Drost said of Bikram and his wife Rajashree. "We all do. When that man passes from this earth he will be remembered for revolutionizing yoga. No question he is a giant, and that giant scares the hell out of a lot of people."