Copyright Trademark

Guest Post: Delhi HC simplifies a complex Asana


Sadhvi Sood brings us her third post in our 2nd Annual SpicyIP Fellowship applicant series. This post examines a recent Delhi High Court case wherein ‘pranic healing’, the phrase as well as techniques were claimed to be protected by trademark and copyright law respectively. You can view Sadhvi’s previous posts here. As a note for our readers, our application window for our Fellowship has now closed. We should hopefully be able to go through all the submitted applications and announce the results by next week.

Delhi HC simplifies a complex Asana

complex pose

Maharishi Patanjali, the compiler of Yoga Sūtras, must have rolled over in his grave when Philippines based ‘Institute for Inner Studies’ (IIS) made a plea claiming copyright in techniques of “Pranic Healing” and a trademark over the expression “Pranic Healing”. Fortunately, the Delhi HC dismissed both these claims in the case of Institute for Inner Studies & Ors vs Charlotte Anderson & Ors. While delivering the judgment, the HC also recognized the earlier instances where similar issues had arisen. The case in point being the copyright claim filed (in US) by Bikram Choudhury over his compilation of 26 Asanas (see here and here).

Trademark Issue

On the question of trademark infringement and passing-off, the court held in favour of the defendant. The prior existence of the expression “Pranic Healing” was evidenced by the texts dating as far back as 1906 (a book by Swami Ramachakra), thus making the claimed term fall in public domain. The term has had a generic character which implied that it was not coined by the “Master Choa Kok Sui” (“Master”) of IIS. Conceivably, it lacked any distinctiveness required as per Section 9 of the Trademark Act. The Court also stated that IIS committed “fraud upon the register” by knowingly applying for a trademark over an expression which was a generic term, sans distinctiveness.

Copyright Issue

First, the plaintiff claimed copyright in the “Pranic Healing” techniques as they possessed copyright over the titles of books written by the Master, CD Roms, trade literature and the materials therein (compilations of the techniques). Thus, the performance of the techniques by the defendants was sought to be restricted by prohibitory orders. Secondly, they claimed that “Pranic Healing” was a work of choreography; thus, copyrightable as a “dramatic work” under section of 13(a) Copyright Act, 1957.

On the first issue, though the Court was faced with questions on originality, performance, reproduction and exception to the right of performance, I have focussed only on the performance aspect in this post. In this regard, the most significant principle that the Court applied was derived from the dichotomy that exists between ideas and the expressions of these ideas.  This dichotomy is directly related to the doctrine that only the expressions are copyrightable, not the ideas themselves. In the UK, this principle was clearly recognized in Designers Guild Ltd v Russell Williams. In the US, Baker vs. Selden, and Feist Publications Inc vs Rural Telephone Services Company, actively applied this doctrine. In the Baker’s case, the Court clearly enunciated that though a copyright subsists in the manner in which the art (of book-keeping) is described, it does not subsist in the art (of book-keeping) itself. This implies that a copyright may exist “in the manner of language employed […] and overall compilation of the work”, but it cannot be granted in the art or even the performance of it, regardless of its uniqueness or originality. For a better understanding, take the instance of the plethora of Kama Sutra guides and books available today. One may claim a copyright over the textbook, guides, online material and/or the pictorial content and the compilation of all the material contained therein, but one cannot claim a copyright over the ‘art of sex’ or the performance of it as celebrated in Kama Sutra! Similarly, the copyright can be over the manner you’ve written how Pranayam can be performed and how you’ve illustrated it (“selection arrangement and compilation”). However, you cannot claim ownership over Pranayam or any other Yogic techniques (Asana) itself, which have been a part of public knowledge since “time immemorial”. Hence, IIS’ claims failed.

As an in arguendo, the plaintiffs submitted that the ‘Asanas of Pranic Healing’ be attributed a copyright being a “dramatic work” under Section 13 (a) of the Copyright Act. After a bare reading of Section 2(h) of the Copyright Act, which defines a “dramatic work”, the Court concluded that while there can be an illusion that a written description of the “Asanas of Pranic Healing” falls under the definition of a dramatic work, in actuality Asanas cannot be given the traits of dramatic work for they are mere “daily routine exercises”. The Court also determined that it is essential that there ought to be some predetermination or fixation when it comes to performance; and even a sliver of doubt is enough strip off the label of a dramatic work and the protection granted thereby. For example, sports and news presentations and by way of extension even exercise routines and yoga techniques are those instances which can be doubted with regards to “pre-determination or fixation”. Simply, can you compare the complexity of a dance performance to the simplicity of the yoga sequence? Absolutely not! This can be well explained by the U.S. case of Bikram’s Yoga (2012) wherein it was held that “[…] mere selection and arrangement of physical movements does not in itself support a claim of choreographic authorship”. It also assisted the Court in concluding that sheer selection and arrangement of physical movements in the “Pranic Healing” techniques will not make it a work of choreography.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that IPR has promoted innovation on all fronts, it hasn’t been without costs. At times, these costs are incurred in the form of courts entertaining frivolous copyright and trademark claims (now you even have “patent trolls”). Surprisingly, such frivolity can also be accompanied with bitterness for an old companion. In the instant case, not only were the claims frivolous and humorous (yet troubling), but were also directed towards the once “spiritual companion or consort” of the Master, Ms. Charlotte Anderson (one of the defendants). Having said that, I would like to recommend the parties, which so vociferously try to monopolize yoga, to try some of their own healing techniques and calm themselves.

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