A Court Ruling That Would Forever Change the Course of Pilates

Written by:
Jessica Gowen
October 24, 2022

On October 14, 2022, The New York Times published an article titled The Fight for the Soul of Pilates. The story was on the front page of the paper’s print edition style section the following weekend. It was a huge amount of visibility for the Pilates community. The topic? A new copyright-related lawsuit filed in federal court.

At the heart of the conflict is Sean Gallagher, a NYC-based Pilates teacher who worked with one of Joseph Pilates’ proteges, Romana Kryzonowska, in the 1990s and 2000s. Gallagher has acquired an expansive collection of vintage Pilates equipment and photos over the years, as well as a property near Jacob’s Pillow, Massachusetts, where Pilates hosted workshops. 

Gallagher has a long history of legal action to assert control over the work of Joseph Pilates. Back in the late 1990s, he sent cease and desist letters to Pilates teachers and studio owners around the US stating that he owned the trademark to Joseph Pilates’ work, and no one could teach that work nor produce equipment based on Pilates’ designs without either training with him or getting his permission. Gallagher lost that trademark lawsuit; in the ruling, his trademark claims were deemed fraudulent. 

The end of the trademark opened up the floodgates for Pilates to spread around the US and beyond. 

The upside of the trademark going away was that the men and women who trained with Joseph and Clara Pilates - and their proteges - were free to begin to develop their own teacher training programs. 

Pilates Teacher Training programs like Power Pilates, for which the former Studio Lotus was a key training center, could not have expanded without Gallagher losing the trademark lawsuit. In fact, The Pilates Center (TPC), the teacher training program that we offer at Activcore in Atlanta, was party to the original trademark lawsuit and instrumental in Gallagher’s defeat. In short, most of our team would not have been able to get Pilates teacher training without the trademark having been deemed expired by the court. 

Loss of the trademark has also resulted in the proliferation of “pilates” teacher training programs: programming either inspired by the underlying concepts of Pilates or programming simply trading on a public perception of what Joseph Pilates’ work is. As Joseph Pilates’ work has been diluted and re-interpreted (and, in some cases, just appropriated and manipulated), it has gotten more and more important for consumers to understand what kind of training a teacher has. 

And, as the Pilates community has attempted to figure out how and whether to stay faithful to Pilates’ work, many have looked to archival photos, videos and letters to better understand the intentions of the system’s creator. 

Where is the easiest place to see this work? Online. 

Where is the easiest place online to share archival photos and videos? Social media.

As social media usage has exploded, Gallagher has started to assert copyright claims on photos that he has in his possession. He has done so by filing complaints against specific social media accounts with Meta. Meta, in turn, has suspended user accounts without verifying his copyright claim

Gallagher also has a long history of attacking Pilates teachers he dislikes in social media forums and fomenting an “us versus them” mentality among the teachers in his orbit and everyone else in the industry. In short, there have been about 25 years of turmoil and legal action due to the trademark and copyright disputes.

Restriction of access to Pilates’ work in the public domain makes it harder for professionals in our industry to stay faithful to the system that Pilates created. Much of the knowledge that was passed through the second- and now third-generation teachers was passed orally. Pilates documented his work extensively so that it could be shared and accurately reproduced. 

Limits on access to archival documentation also makes it harder for a passionate Pilates student to find that archival material for their own inspiration and reference. 

The larger issue of Meta shutting down accounts without verifying a copyright claim goes far beyond the Pilates industry. For any business that relies on social media marketing, loss of access to one’s social media accounts based on a spurious copyright claim would be devastating. 

Finally, on an energetic level, the divisiveness and hurt that these lawsuits have engendered in the Pilates world have made it harder to focus on the really important questions at hand: 

  • How do we ensure fidelity to Pilates’ work while also making room for advancements in our understanding of the body? 
  • What are the minimum qualifications that a teacher must meet to call themselves a Pilates teacher?
  • Who gets to decide these questions?
  • How do consumers know what they are getting when they inquire about services in a Pilates studio or club?
  • How do consumers of teacher training services know what they are getting when they sign up for teacher training?

At Activcore, everyone on our Pilates team is comprehensively trained, meaning they have learned how to teach Pilates exercises across all of the apparatus we have in the center. Most of us are also classically trained, meaning we learned how to teach in traditional apprenticeship programs with at least 600 hours of training rooted in the work as Pilates handed it down to Romana. 

In my 20+ years of teaching and managing studios, I’ve worked in a studio where I was told (by someone screaming at me from across the room, in front of my client) “if you didn’t learn that movement from someone who can trace the words back to Joseph Pilates, don’t teach it in my studio”. As someone who loves to learn and values respectful treatment in the workplace, this was a clear indicator that it was time for me to move on. 

And I’ve worked in studios where the teachers I worked with had been duped into paying for a “comprehensive” Pilates training that was anything but. 

As a hiring manager, it has heartbreaking over the years to meet - many times - with teachers who came to an interview, told me what they did for their training (usually at a cost of $5k or more) and see them unable to cogently teach the method because their training didn’t actually deliver that material.

These extremes in industry “standards” don’t serve the work, the teachers, and especially not the clients. That said, online bullying and copyright claims aren’t the path forward either.

If you’d like to learn more about the lawsuit and how it came about, read the New York Times article here. (It is behind a paywall, unfortunately). If you’d like to learn more about the teachers attempting to make Gallagher prove his copyright claims, check out this Instagram account.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

Jessica Gowen

VP Performance Development
Jessica Gowen leads the performance side of Activcore as Vice President of Performance Development. She works at the Activcore studio in Atlanta, Georgia, located just 2 miles from Emory University. A passionate entrepreneur, Jessica joined Activcore to further develop professionally as an industry leader in the Atlanta area, and to grow her online performance offerings on a national scale. 


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