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Bikram’s Million Dollar Lawsuit War Rages On, What Does He Have To Lose?

in Business of Yoga, YD News, Yoga Feuds

“Lady Gaga listens to me,” he boasted to a Boston audience this summer. “Her mantra is only one word—Bikram—because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works.”

Good grief. A hot yoga war rages in the heat of the summer. No it’s not over whose pose is the best, but who poses the biggest threat to Bikram Choudhury‘s livelihood, which is pretty lively indeed at an estimated $7 million in annual earnings, multiple Rolls-Royces, a diet of Coca-Cola and his own Vedic vitamins and plenty of diamond-encrustedness, not to mention his habit of spewing offensive, yes-he-really-did-just-say-that quotes, also still very much alive.

We wrote about the hot mess last fall when news of Bikram going balls out and suing Greg Gumucio, founder of Yoga to the People, for $1 million hit the yogawebs. An article in NYC’s Village Voice takes a deeper look at the sticky situation and brings us up to date on the state of yoga finders-keepers and gilded gurus.

In short, Gumucio used to be Bikram’s student and a “good disciple” massaging his way to the inner circle in the mid-90s.

“I decided to massage the evil villain in my life,” [Gumucio] recalls, laughing. Bikram noticed his new masseur and was impressed.

“From that day forward, he was nice to me,” Gumucio says. “But I had to pay a different kind of, you know, penalty. Because then he made me massage him, like, every single day for, like, four hours a day. I would be dripping with sweat all over, just from working on this crazy man.”

As the two became bros, Gumucio’s yoga and entrepreneur interests grew as well. This displeased Bikram who cried betrayal, and so the two split.

In 2006, Gumucio defected and started his own chain of studios called Yoga to the People which borrowed, like a lot, from the 26 postures and steamy temps of Bikram Yoga. But unlike Bikram Yoga, YTTP touts their “no glorified teachers, scripts or pedestals” policy, and instead of charging upwards of $15-$25 YTTP charges a suggested $8, which for many broke NYU students and East Village residents means free…ish, and very tempting.

Gumucio made a killing, and it’s estimated that his four NYC studios now lure in about 1,000 yogis a day (he also has west coast studios, besides). Bikram, who initially let it all slide, is steaming about the competition, claiming YTTP “directly copied” his copyrighted body shapes and has sued Gumucio on grounds of stealing intellectual property. He’s also probably still pretty pissed about a Penn Station studio closing last year, which was blamed on nearby YTTP stealing clientele and prompted legal action.

As much money as there is at stake, many are seeing this as more of a moral issue.

“He’s not a businessman,” [LES Bikram studio owner and Lady Gaga teacher, Tricia Donegan] says of Bikram. “He’s a terrible businessman. He’s not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way.”

Mhm. The “right way” which may have been wrongly protected by the U.S. Copyright Office. A clarification on yoga copyrighting was released on June 22nd stating that “if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted” and any prior yoga copyrights were “issued in error.” Woops. That would seem to clear up the issue, rendering the case moot, but not so fast. The government clarified their stance on copyrights (sorta) but they’re not willing to make any moves to reevaluate ones already issued. And Bikram has no plans of backing down, or withholding from comparing Greg Gumucio to Osama bin Laden or Hitler.

“I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit,” says Bikram.

“If you have a sick body, a screw-loose brain, you will only be surviving—that will be a man like Greg, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden,” he says between bites of plump scallops.

But in the age, or recent enlightened era of guru disrobement, is this a money issue or a case of incredibly inflated egos and blind guruship? With the yoga industry estimated to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016 and the Bikram Yoga franchise still growing at a feverish pace, there’s not a big chance YTTP will suck that much out of the Yoga Don’s deep pockets to make a dent. But perhaps it’s not the money he’s worried about so much as the loyalty and breadth of his empire.

Bikram seems to inflate with energy as he addresses his followers. “You work hard to make me famous,” he says. “Something I did right all over the globe.”

Bikram laughs. “Nobody in the world ever did this,” he continues. “Nobody built a family like this.”

Some years back, hot yoga teachers rebelled against Bikram forming the Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) “to get out from under his brain,” as Gumucio put it, and who sought to teach the practice freely.  In 2005 the group sued Bikram for his cease-and-desist demands, but lost the case on the grounds of copyright infringement. With all of that up in the air now, will students and teachers rise again? And will that happen before or after yoga makes it to the Olympics?

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9 comments… add one

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    I love Bikram because he’s honest and forthright doesn’t engage in the usual yogic psycho-babble and double-talk.

    He is a no-nonsense businessman and yoga entrepreneur. And he’s also one of the few people of color – and one with authentic “lineage” – who has risen to this height.

    Like John Friend, he inspires envy and a desire from those less inspired to steal and profit from his gifts. All brilliant go getters suffer this fate.

    I felt compelled to post something because the silence is deafening. Apparently everyone is too intimidated to go on the record?

    That’s what Machiavelli defined, in part, as the quality of the “Prince.” Someone who is feared, and respected, more than he is loved.

    That appears to be Mister Bikram.

  • d

    and clearly the goal of yoga is to become a prince who rules over others.

    oh wait.

    Let me explain Bikram in the types of terms he would use. He’s a cocky arrogant slimy piece of $%^t who thinks that selling fitness to people who don’t know better is the same thing as improving their lives. I know so many people who have been injured in Bikram classes, the man is a hack. The sooner this dies the better.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    I’m not into Bikram myself, though I did experiment with classes while I was in Florida in 2005. I didn’t see it as a fitness regimen per se, but it’s certainly not a meditative approach to yoga. I see what attracts some people, and not just fitness geeks. A number of my friends are quite a bit older, very meditative, actually, but they still appreciate the degree to which they stretch – and sweat – in Bikram. It seems to fit their intense personalities. They don’t go to yoga to meditate because they don’t see yoga as meditation. They do their meditation elsewhere, without asanas, which they do not consider the key to meditation. Can you really blame them actually?

  • d

    I don’t blame anyone for being duped by someone who dupes people. I blame the person tricking them. People who don’t know anything about anatomy are going to hurt themselves in Bikram classes. This is true of all yoga, it’s especially true of Bikram.

    If you’re looking to sweat a whole lot in a yoga class there are plenty of other places to go where you aren’t going to hurt yourself.

  • honomann

    The silence is deafening because people stopped giving a f… about Bikram years ago. Dude’s all about the $$$.

  • IP Freely

    As someone who studies intellectual property and practices Bikram yoga, I’m interested enough to offer the opinion that this case is a joke. What the original article (and Bikram) apparently miss is that the copyright office is simply an office of record, and as a matter of course does not re-evaluate copyrights previously granted. That is a role for the courts. What the copyright office does however do, and did in this instance on two occasions, is to issue clarifications of its position as a signal to the courts, especially when the office believes it has issued previous copyrights in error.

    Copyright law on this issue is actually abundantly clear, and when it does go to trial, anyone except apparently Bikram and his lawyer can tell you it’s an open and shut case and it won’t go well for them. People will jump in and say it’s like a copyright on a song or dance: it’s not. The copyright Bikram holds is on a book, and a compilation at that, and that’s very different than song or dance in the law. In fact, before the OSU case, Bikram seemed to try and apply for a new copyright for his sequence as a performing art, and he was explicitly denied. And the OSU case wasn’t lost, it was settled after the judge said the copyright office had been sufficiently unclear that the copyright issue deserved to be heard at trial. No one can say since the settlement was confidential, but given the fact that many of the original OSU members continued to teach the sequence, it would seem that the settlement was not a total loss.

    Bikram’s current complaint is available online publicly, and what’s more interesting to me is that in the claim he seems to be bringing up contract issues with teachers, but even a glance at the contract he now asks people to sign has restrictions that seem to violate labor laws in most states to a pretty massive degree. And its obvious enough that many of his trained teachers have refused to sign his franchise agreement, all of which would seem to set him up for a pretty significant class action suit, especially if the supposed copyright he holds is invalidated at trial.

    It’ll be interesting, that’s for sure. I’m a big Bikram geek, but a bigger law geek. It’s a great method of health, which is ironically exactly what exempts it from copyright protection.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    IP Freely –

    I appreciate hearing more about the case. I will have to review the complaint. However, copyright is only one issue, I suspect. Did these ex-Bikram teachers sign non-compete and confidentiality agreements in which they agreed not to set up their own shops or to divulge the methods and practices learned while in Bikran’s employ for x amount of time?

    Is their current business effort, YTTP, consistent with the terms of those agreements with Bikram?

    Whether there may be other items in those agreements deemed in violation of labor law — as you say, not sure what those would be — in no way vitiates the other basic terms of the non-compete and confidentiality agreements.

    Copyright law makes clear what in fact can be copyrighted. However, you are still bound by contract law, and the agreements you sign. If, for example, you agreed in writing you will not share Bikram methods and process for 5 years, the fact that those methods and process also turn out not to be copyrighted is not dispositive. Your agreement not to share them is. You didn’t agree not to share them because they were copyrighted. You agreed not to share them because it was a condition of your employment.

    Not sure what the “class action” cause of action is that you are referring to?

    Best

  • IP Freely

    Stewart-

    I don’t have a dog in this fight (don’t know Bikram or YTP, and don’t teach classes for either) so I probably can’t answer most of your questions, but I might be able to clarify some things from my last post.

    YTPs response to the suit, also publicly online, claims that he has no contract or agreement of any kind with Bikram. Team Bikram hasn’t entered any contract or agreement into evidence, though he did for all the other people he is suing, and the guy from YTP entered his old certificate, which offers unrestricted rights to teach the method. So I’m assuming for the moment that part of the claim is a nonstarter.

    What I’m interested in, and what I was referencing in the last post, was actually part of Bikram’s suit claiming YTP induced other Bikram teachers to breach their contracts by working with YTP. I have no idea whether or not YTP did or does hire any Bikram-trained teachers, but actually that is probably irrelevant. Here in California, where the case is being tried, noncompete agreements are illegal, and have been since 1872. Even in other states that don’t have such a stringent standard, my guess is that since Bikram is not actually employing any of these teachers, his noncompete clause probably wouldn’t pass muster in most courts.

    So on the one hand I’m surprised he is pushing this thing to trial, because the reality is very likely that the message that comes back to all the Bikram teachers, or at least the CA ones, will be, “You know how your teacher says he owns this thing and you can only teach it where he says? Well, he doesn’t own it and you can teach it anywhere.” Then again, Bikram has never struck me as someone strongly connected to reality.

    For years, Bikram’s been publicly claiming copyright entitlements he does not hold (the recent copyright office letter doesn’t change the law, it really just restates it to reflect what anyone who actually read it would already know), as well as noncompete privileges that have been illegal since 2008. What bugs me is the attitude that if he screams enough and throws enough lawyers and cash at people, they’ll give him whatever he wants. That’s not entrepreurship, that’s a high-class temper tantrum.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    A lot of business competition, like competition, in general is a high-class temper tantrum? Seriously, people push for what they think they can get, and it forces other people to fight or retreat. Having been a small business owner, it’s not for the faint of heart – or spirit. Most people who succeed in business have a certain killer instinct. If you don’t have it, you hire a COO and a CFO who do.

    Interesting about the status of non-competes in California. I can tell you that such agreements are taken very, very seriously in the Washington, DC metro area, having been on both sides, and having won and lost on this issue.

    When I lost, I was not a full-time employee, just a contractor, but it was construed that I was breaching my non-compete agreement simply by inquiring about getting hired elsewhere, in the same industry, and by sharing an outdated, valueless draft of a small work product that I had produced while there. This was well after I had left but within the time frame of the agreement.

    The woman who fought me was totally out of control. She made Bikram look and sound like Buddha. However, these issues, and much of contract law, does favor established entrepreneurs, think. The courts and the copyright office – which is the “government” after all – are very different kettles of fish.

    Interesting stuff. I have no dog in the fight, either, but have dealt extensively with IP business issues in my career. I have quite a few friends who swear by Bikram, though. I suspect they would be likely to take his side, or would be highly sympathetic.

    Thanks.

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