Treading on Traditional Terrain!

With many of us into a well deserved summer break after a sensational quarter of pounding patent action, allow me to lead you on, from the provocative world of patents to the softer subjects of religion and spirituality as they exist within the realm of IP.

To keep my mind and body muscle agile through the summer, I am signing up for a yoga class. For those of you who prefer more sedate pastimes I suggest Yoga, Inc, a documentary that made its debut last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie deals with the rampant commercialization of this traditional spiritual discipline citing instances such as those of Bikram Choudhry ,the self styled yoga guru who has produced a glamorous kitsch of the traditional hatha yoga to market it as his own brand of ‘Hot yoga’ in the up market LA locale. Hot or otherwise, distilled down to its essence, this is just a variation of Sage Pathanjalis’ Yoga teachings. Yoga as a spiritual discipline finds its genesis in Traditional Hindu Vedic Philosophy.A classic case of Traditional Knowledge moving out of Indian shores to the west FOC (free of cost) and inhibition. That Bikram himself could bring about a copyright infringement suit against other yoga teachers for usurping his techniques is a different tale altogether.

‘The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories, and 2,315 yoga trademarks. There’s big money in those pretzel twists and contortions – $3 billion a year in America alone’, claims’Suketu Mehta, in his article titled ‘Can you patent wisdom’ published recently in the New York Times.
Suketu in his piece gives us his witty take on the universal lift of yoga , while drawing an interesting parallel between drugs and hatha yoga. I agree that there is an element of truth in what he says, that both dugs and yoga act pretty much in the same way ,that of adding health, vigour and vitality, but does that validate the quid pro quo arrangement.?Right to manufacture generic Gleevec to the Indian drug manufacturers in exchange for proprietary Padmasana to the western world?Talk of robust mercantilism!
Suketu, thank you very much.As suggested I shall stick to the Sirassana and pass the pretzel yogic pose. Bawdy irreverance, but the message stands well conveyed!

More on the subject of subject of Religious poaching(or should I say Irreligious)and moving on to another religious hotbed……
Early last year, the papacy allegedly came under fire for charging a royalty fee on papal announcements. The controversy was triggered by the fact that a Milanese publishing house was slapped with a hefty royalty fee for publishing an anthology of Pope Benedict’s speech without due authorization from the Papacy. My spiritual sensibilities ring with unease at the idea of attaching a price tag on religion, However in situations such as this where religious edicts and property are exploited to derive a pecuniary benefit it does become necessary to demarcate the ‘sacred’ from the ‘saleable’. While a ‘fair use’ of religious texts is certainly valid a free use sans a fee certainly constitutes Theopiracy! (thats derived from the word Theology) A regulation of such use appears imminent. A report in MIP states that the papacy proposes to introduce a legislation that will extend copyright protection to all papal texts and announcements henceforth as well have a retrospective effect on texts released by the Vatican over the last 50 years

Speaking of converting the sacred in to ‘saleable merchandise’, a visit to the local gift store ,I see shelves lined with paraphernalia of every kind etched with sacred symbols and texts.’Om’ or the traditional Vedic symbol appears to the most popular. Cashing in on the spiritual boom and awareness, manufactures of these wares seemed to have discovered an ingenuous way of marketing their goods to the hungry spiritual seeker. That said, drinking from the ‘Om Cup’, or chanting knockoff Tibetan chants bearing new age inane lyrics do little to ease the soul or awaken the kundalini. Old wine in a new bottle, the much sought after Nirvana remains elusive!Using sacred symbols and signs that constitute Traditional Knowledge as a marketing gig not only infringes upon certain residuary IP rights that vest in them but also seem to derogate from the sanctity of the sacred syllable.

Emphasizing the importance of Traditional Knowledge Systems, the United Nations University (1990’s) proposal says, “Traditional knowledge or ‘local knowledge’ is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environment. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural, was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development

In the light of this definition, Religion as a TK stream assumes great significance in the Indian setting , the cradle of many religions and spiritual philosophies. While initiatives are afoot to address the menace of Biopiracy ,there is an emergent need to cover other streams such as religion ,culture et al , and the entire gamut of TK systems that constitute precious IP of the country. The sensitive nature of the TK-Religion discipline compounded by the difficulties in documenting and tracing its origins have perhaps deterred legislators and activists from doing the needful on the TK-Religion front.
A sui generis legislation to regulate the appropriation of the varied streams of TK is definitely the need of the hour.Copyright and patent protection may just not be adequate to protect TK… seems paradoxical to assign a time frame to the timeless!
To push the case to its frontiers, Religion is one stream of TK that may be worthy of ‘ever greening’ ,of course with an appropriate licensing mechanism thrown in to cater to the demands of ‘Karma Capitalism’ . You can’t be in the system and beat the system! .

‘Spirituality should include a fair measure of common sense’. Thats the Bodhisattava for you!


  1. AvatarYamuna

    Also, trying to protect religious knowledge/ texts through copyright etc., might end up designating few as the ‘custodians’ of religion…

  2. AvatarAysha Shaukat

    Yamuna, that is defintely one the gray areas in attempting to regulate this discipline.Identifying the source, documenting the precepts and devising a regulatory mechanism are other practical difficulties that one might reasonably apprehend in the process of streamlining the IP rights that go with this stream. Also as pointed out by you, we would also have to necessarily debate whether designating or even implying ownership of religion is proper at all, which on the face of it appears moot given the nature of the knowledge sought to be regulated in this instance. It does seem to be a double edged , the usage of which needs to be deliberated upon very carefully.
    However having said that,the menace of misappropraiation of TK-Religion is a real time threat as evidenced by the recent developments. It certainly calls for action.


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