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“I wouldn’t be able to pay the teacher the standard I want, pay for the heat system, the amenities, the shower, the space, the rent—keeping it the way it should be, so the studio is not completely packed and crowded. . . . If he makes it more affordable to people who can’t afford it, I am all for that. If it starts to bring down the value of a yoga studio . . . then I think it becomes a problem.”
To Donegan, this isn’t a fight over money or market supremacy. It’s a moral fray, a clear contest between right and wrong.
“He’s not a businessman,” she 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.”
This is the legacy Bikram hoped to protect by suing Gumucio. But as he has brought his foe’s business practices into the limelight, his own are being scrutinized more than ever. For the past nine months, the validity of Bikram’s copyright has been called into question repeatedly, most recently by the U.S. Copyright Office itself.
Although the various yoga practices belong to the long tradition of Indian culture, the specific arrangement of these poses can be uniquely organized, and thus potentially owned by an individual—or so it was previously thought.
On June 22, the Copyright Office seemed to reverse itself. Deputy General Counsel Robert Kasunic issued a clarification, declaring that if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted. He added that any prior yoga copyrights were “issued in error.”
The announcement threw the dispute into the air. Now, the question isn’t just whether Gumucio violated a copyright, but whether Bikram’s copyright is valid at all.
This would appear to leave Bikram on thin ice. The healing of ailments has always been his primary selling point. Or at least that’s how Gumucio sees it.
“Not only does this get me out of my legal mess, but it critically and unequivocally says yoga cannot be copyrighted,” he says.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Nothing to do with the federal government ever is.
Although Kasunic admits that Bikram’s copyright was likely issued in error and that no new copyrights will be issued to yoga, he also says his office has no plans to reevaluate the ones already issued.
In other words, his is a quintessential government mea culpa: Yes, we probably messed up. But you don’t expect us to actually do anything about it, do you?
Instead, Bikram and Gumucio will have to wait for a judge to settle their war when the case goes to trial in Los Angeles sometime next year.
It’s Still Good to Be King
To most of the country, the yoga war might be nothing more than another mercantile fight between two titans wrestling over the spoils of their industry. Yet back at the banquet hall in Boston, Bikram frames Gumucio as a villain on par with the all-time greats.
“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.
Bikram now claims “zero feeling” for his old disciple and believes that the American courts will eventually decide that rectitude is at his side, where it rightfully belongs.
“You cannot steal somebody’s intellectual property. Law and justice protect,” Bikram says, leaning close to be heard amid the roar of conversation, his small brown eyes red with exhaustion. “Because I’m a sweet, kind guy, everybody think I’m an idiot, I’m weak. Now I have to protect my franchising. If I don’t, nobody will buy my franchising anymore.”
Suddenly, there is the chime of a butter knife clinking against a wine glass for quiet. It comes from one of Bikram’s close friends, who is standing with his arm around the guru’s wife, Rajashree.
“Today is Bikram and Rajashree’s 23rd wedding anniversary,” the man announces proudly as the room erupts in applause.
“Oh, I forgot! Shit!” Bikram exclaims as a large mango cake is wheeled to the center of the room. “I forgot completely! Shit! Why you didn't remind me? Shit! You keep me too busy!”
The yogis sing “happy anniversary” to the tune of “Happy Birthday to You.” Then Bikram announces that, far from forgetting the occasion, he has bought his wife one of the world’s most expensive cars, an $800,000 Rolls-Royce convertible.
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.”