Most of us have practiced yoga at school when we were young and some of us still practice yoga to this day. Yoga helps the human body in many ways including lowering blood pressure, lowering body weight, lowering the risk of heart diseases as well as keeping the mind healthy and sharp. In other words, yoga doesn’t just benefit you physically but also helps you mentally. We all have observed the way in which yoga has taken over the world with people like Bikram Choudary and Baba Ramdev coming into the limelight because of it. Of course, as Indians, many of us are proud that the world is recognizing our traditional ways and appreciating it but what a lot of us don’t see is that they can exploit this by using their intellectual property laws.
There have been cases in the recent past where the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted patents to scientists for the thing we have known for generations. For example, they had granted a patent to two scientists who claimed to have discovered the healing properties of turmeric. As children, all of our parents or grandparents have rubbed turmeric on our wounds or made us drink turmeric-milk when we were sick because for centuries and centuries we have all known about the healing properties of turmeric. So how did they get away with this? The fairly simple explanation would be that since no one in the USPTO was even aware of this ancient knowledge they were of the belief that this was truly something novel and innovative. It was then that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) applied for a reexamination of the patent. After a brief investigation and a lot of evidence from CSIR’s side, the USPTO accepted that it had made a mistake in granting a patent for turmeric and revoked it. It was after this case and the basmati rice (some company patented it and sold it as ‘basmati rice’) that CSIR decided it was high time something was done to protect our traditional knowledge.
They came up with the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) which is basically a digital archive of our traditional and ancient knowledge like medicinal plants or medicinal formulations, etc. This is a way by which our ancient knowledge is protected from unethical patents or biopiracy. So the properties of turmeric, neem and even things like basmati rice are protected by this digital repository. What does the TKDL have to do with yoga?
COPYRIGHT FOR YOGA
You may have all heard about Bikram Yoga or Hot Yoga. Bikram Yoga is a sequence of 26 yoga asanas and an additional 2 unique breathing techniques done in a hot room around 45 C. This hot room is meant to mimic the weather in India. Bikram Choudary, the man who started Bikram Yoga is famous all over the world and especially the USA for basically introducing yoga to the mainstream western world. In 2011, he filed over 3 lawsuits saying that Hot Yoga or Bikram Yoga is his property and anyone using the asanas or propagating Hot Yoga would be infringing on his copyright. The question is that is Bikram Yoga so different that it can be copyrighted? Under US Copyright Laws choreography can be copyrighted, but is it something brand new or is it a new sequence of already known exercises? Initially, the Lower Court sided with Bikram Choudary and said that there exists copyright of Bikram Yoga. It was in the 2012 review that the US Copyright Office made a definite statement that yoga asanas and sequences are not entitled to protection under the copyright law. This was followed by an overruling in the Bikram Yoga case where the US Federal Court took away the copyright and stated that this yoga sequence is not a creative compilation of exercises and is therefore not copyrightable. It was after this case that the CSIR realized that it’s not only our traditional medicines that are stake but also our traditional ways. Gurus and experts in the field of yoga documented over 900 asanas and entered them into the digital library. This was a case in abroad, then what about in our very own country? Have people asked to copyright yoga?
In January 2014, the case of Institute for Inner Studies v. Charlotte Anderson the court discussed whether yoga asanas and pranic healing could get a trademark or copyright protection. The Institute for Inner Studies (IIS is based in the Philippines) tried to stop a few people and a few organizations from practicing pranic healing because, according to them, panic healing was developed by their master and therefore they own the rights to it. The Court held that certain literary works may be copyrightable but in this case, both the parties wanted to practice the asanas or postures which stemmed from the concept of pranic healing. The concept of pranic healing may be expressed differently by both parties but the concept remains the same and will have certain similarities. The court was of the view that the asanas and the concept can’t be copyrighted but books or any other literary works based on pranic healing could be jointly authored by both parties, which means that the authorship of certain works that even the defendant claimed to have worked on along with the plaintiff can belong to both of them. The Court very clearly stated that yoga techniques or asanas are not ‘original literary works or dramatic works’ under the Copyright Act and therefore can’t be copyrighted.
YOGA AS A TRADEMARK
In the IIS case, the plaintiffs claimed that the term “Pranic Healing” was trademarked by them and they also claimed that the term had attained or got a secondary significance because of the plaintiff’s long-standing use of it. The defendants argued that the term “Pranic Healing” is a public right and also that the term is of generic nature. These two arguments were made to dismiss the plaintiff’s trademark claim and the claim that they had secondary significance, respectively. Another piece of evidence that proved that the term and concept of pranic healing wasn’t the property of the IIS was the fact that texts dating back as far as 1906 evidenced the existence of pranic healing. The term lacked any distinctiveness as laid down under section 9 of the Trademarks Act. The Court also felt that IIS committed “fraud upon the register” because they knowingly applied to trademark a generic term which had no distinctiveness. Therefore it can be derived from this decision of the Court that terms such as ‘yoga’, ‘pranic healing’, ‘pranayama’ or any other term that has no distinctiveness and has its roots deep in our ancient traditions can’t be simply trademarked.
Although the above observation is true there are many cases where trademarks have been granted to clothing companies or gyms or companies that deal with manufacturing accessories for yoga, and this is because they aren’t trademarking the term “Yoga” in its essence but are trademarking their brand under the specific classes as given under the Trademarks Act.
We know now that yoga asanas can’t be copyrighted or trademarked but can they be patented? The idea of patenting a well known and ancient practice is quite absurd and is honestly insulting to our traditions. For a patent to be granted there are certain requirements any invention or innovative material should have; it should be unique, innovative and profitable. If someone would be trying to patent a yoga asana then they would not satisfy even one of the criteria mentioned above. A yoga asana would not be unique or innovative because it has been in existence since (literally) the beginning of time and there are tons of written and other materials to prove this. The CSIR also has put down most of the yoga asanas in the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library therefore in the pre-grant stage itself they can file an opposition against anyone who would try to patent a yoga asana. Since almost every person who has mastered yoga knows every asana and teaching then it would be impossible for it to be unique, innovative and therefore would rarely be profitable. But what if this person has come up with a brand new asana or a brand new way to do an asana? According to historians and gurus who are well learned in this field, it is highly impossible for there to be a brand new asana or a brand new way to practice an asana. This is because the knowledge of yoga has existed probably even before the Indus Valley Civilization (the first civilization of mankind) and every possible yoga asana and way to do these yoga asanas have already been discovered or thought of.
Yoga is, as many people have said, India’s gift to the world. It is something that is so imbibed in us that it has somehow become a part of almost all of our daily routines. It has helped many people overcome diseases and mental illnesses. It is something that can benefit everyone and therefore India has never done anything to stop other countries from practicing it. It has always been, since ancient times, propagated and taught to everyone so that the world can benefit from it. It is only recently that India has realized that there is a need to protect this beautiful part of our tradition. India isn’t stopping any country or anyone from practicing and getting the benefits of yoga. India is protecting yoga as a piece of traditional knowledge and making sure that it is not being exploited for monetary gains. India is protecting the very essence of yoga which is that yoga is for everyone to learn and benefit from.
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