What Can I Copyright? (Not Yoga Poses)

You might wonder “What can I copyright?” There are several restrictions on individual works, but copyright protections for compilations of multiple individual works have been controversial, even among courts and agencies that regularly deal with copyright law and policy. Compilations have always been considered copyrightable, but recently, the requirements for a compilation to be copyrightable have been under question. Effective June 22, 2012, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a statement of policy clarifying copyrightable compilations. While it also clarifies the wider policy of the U.S. Copyright Office pertaining to compilations, the statement specifically addresses the controversy over whether sequences of exercises, such as yoga poses, are copyrightable.

The statement by the Copyright Office was issued as a result of pending litigation in a California District Court over the use of a company’s yoga methods by former instructors. The lawyers for the former instructors pointed to a previous statement by the office that yoga routines were ineligible for copyright, and the office decided to issue a complete and detailed statement of their policy toward compilations, such as yoga pose routines.

Compilations have been recognized as copyrightable in the past, but the U.S. Copyright Office issued the current policy statement to clarify a number of previous theories on compilation copyrights. The Copyright Act itself includes compilations as a copyrightable authorship. The act defines a compilation as “work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.” 17 U.S.C. 101. This definition extends copyright protection to some otherwise unacceptable elements if they are arranged as an original work.

Furthermore, The Supreme Court has offered some insight into this definition of compilation. In Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 346 (1991), the Supreme Court concluded that not all groupings of facts or uncopyrightable material are eligible for protection as compilations. The court interpreted the statutory definition to include three requirements for a copyright registration as a compilation:

  • The collection and assembly of pre-existing material, facts, or data
  • The selection, coordination, or arrangement of those materials
  • The creation, by virtue of the particular selection, coordination, or arrangement , of an “original” work of authorship.

In Feist, the court decided that works needed sufficient originality or creativity to be copyrighted as compilations of otherwise ineligible materials.

In their June 22 statement, the U.S. Copyright Office further restricts the compilations eligible for protection to those works that fall under at least one of the categories listed in 17 U.S.C. 102(a). The U.S. Copyright Office will refuse registration of a work unless it falls under one of the following 102(a) categories:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words,
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music,
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works,
  • Pictorial, graphic, and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings,
  • Architectural works

Since section 103 of the code restricts the protection available to compilations if the pieces themselves are unlawfully used, the Copyright Office considers compilations as a subcategory also subject to the above statutory categories from section 102(a). Although these categories are explicitly qualified as not limiting, the Copyright Office’s statement concluded that this is not a grant of power to the court or the Copyright Office to create new categories. Instead, the categories are left open to extension to further categories by Congress itself. Therefore, courts are granted flexibility in determining the scope of these categories but cannot create novel ones. The U.S. Copyright Office interpreted this to extend to their power and concluded that they also cannot create new copyrightable categories.

Ultimately, the U.S. Copyright Office issued the statement to definitively state that the office will refuse registration to compilations of materials that do not fall within the statutory categories.

As applied to yoga routines specifically, the U.S. Copyright Office concluded copyright protection is available only to specific photographs, drawings, or representations of a group of yoga poses under one of the statutory categories from 17 U.S.C. 102. Under the office’s policy, a request to register a yoga pose routine will be refused since the poses themselves are public domain and exercises are not considered an acceptable category under 102. Additionally, the office refuses to register any grouping of functional physical movements under the choreography category, including sports movements, exercises, and routine motor activities.

The U.S. Copyright Office further restricts registration to compilations that are not precluded under one of the categories of unacceptable work under 17 U.S.C. 102(b).  Under 102(b) copyright protection is refused for:

  • Ideas
  • Procedures
  • Processes
  • Systems
  • Methods of operation
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Discoveries

The U.S. Copyright Office applied this to yoga routines and concluded that such compilations are ineligible for copyright protection since they are functional systems or processes under 102(b) regardless of any other aesthetic or artistic elements or value. The only copyright protection available for registration with the office is distinct, expressive descriptions, illustrations, or instructions under one of the 102(a) categories. This makes things like yoga pose instructional videos or books copyrightable, but the routines contained therein are still ineligible for copyright protection.

The U.S. Copyright Office recognized that this relationship between the 17 U.S.C. 101 definition of compilation and the categories and restrictions in 17 U.S.C. 102 was previously overlooked. Since this distinction was previously unenforced, the office recognized that some compilations or arrangements of exercises were issued copyright registrations in error.

The U.S. Copyright Office’s statement has immediate impact on pending litigation, since a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, CA. is currently hearing suits by Bikram Choudhury, the owner of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, to prevent former instructors from using his methods. The pending case is Bikram’s Yoga College of India L.P. v. Yoga to the People Inc., 11-cv-07998, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles). In the litigation, the lawyers representing Yoga to the People presented a previous statement by the U.S. Copyright Office that yoga routines were ineligible for copyright protection. As a result, the U.S. Copyright Office issued this new statement to clarify the previous, incomplete information on the issue. The new statement will most likely favor the former instructors’ ability to continue to use yoga routines under the copyright claims, but other claims in that trial may be a different story.

As a result of The U.S. Copyright Office’s new statement, copyright registration is restricted to the 102(a) categories established by Congress for both individual works and compilations.