In her first entry for our SpicyIP Fellowship applicant series, Arundathi Venkataraman, a 4th year student at NLU, Jodhpur, brings us this interesting post on whether a Geographical Indication can be granted to Yoga! In case, like me, you’re wondering why this question is arising at all – it’s because the there are several reports that the new “AYUSH” minister supposedly made a proposal to the UN for a GI for yoga! Seems yet another stretch too far, for yoga! As Arundathi rightfully concludes, there is not really any case to be made for this. [Readers interested in finding out more details about our SpicyIP Fellowship applicant series can click here.]
GI for Yoga? Merits and Consequences
By: Arundathi Venkataraman
The last time a relationship between Yoga and IP was extensively highlighted was when Bikram Choudhury attempted to copyright his hot yoga series. There have been a number of posts on this here and here, among other places. The new congruence might be one of yoga with Geographical Indication. The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) is one among the new ministries instituted by the current government. Now, yoga has recently been endorsed by the Prime Minister himself. His proposal for an International Yoga Day was recently adopted in a resolution which found overwhelming support. This was closely followed by the statement of Mr. Shripad Naik, the new Minister for AYUSH, in which he is alleged to have made a proposal to the United Nations for a GI for yoga. While I have not found a copy of such a statement having been officially made, reports of this proposal can be found here, here and here. Notwithstanding whether this proposal was made, it is quite interesting to see if such a proposal would have any merit and, if yoga was given a GI, what the consequences would be.
The regimes for GI, in Treaties as well as national and region-specific regulations allow for the protection of only goods or products by way of geographic indication. Additionally, the quality and other attributes of these goods must be essentially due to the place of origin. In the first place, none of these regimes have ever interpreted the terms ‘goods’ or ‘products’ to include what could be termed as an ‘exercise’ or an ‘activity’ such as yoga. In fact, the most common GIs are restricted to wines and spirits and foods and agricultural products. In India, traditional art work and handicrafts have also been given the protection of GI. Yet, an activity similar to yoga, or from which analogies for yoga can be drawn, has never been given a GI protection. In the second place, the requirement that attributes must be essentially due to the place of origin isn’t fulfilled by activities such as yoga. Yoga is known to have healing properties but this isn’t because it is from India. It is healing and powerful for the health simply because the activity itself has such an effect on the human body. Therefore, there is only the slimmest possibility that yoga will be given a GI. Now, even if this highly improbable possibility were to materialize itself, there are then several questions that deal with the consequences of such a grant.
The first of these is- what would a GI for yoga entail? Would it mean that anybody taking yoga classes could not call it ‘yoga’ unless he or she is an Indian? Or, would it mean that these classes must be certified by an authority as having its roots in India, that the exercises were learnt specifically from India, before they could be called ‘yoga’? In sum, it appears that to grant yoga a GI would mean granting an IP that is largely impracticable and ridden with uncertainty.
The benefits of having a product with a GI are fairly well known. Indeed, they can contribute to the development in rural and backward areas and create local employment. In addition, GIs have been known to promote entire regions. However, with an exercise such as yoga, it may very well be possible that its reduced practice in India along with an intellectual property protection will be counter-productive to its practice and might even threaten its existence. That the practice of yoga has fallen to undesirably low levels has been acknowledged by the Union government and is the reason for promoting yoga in schools. Therefore, there is a palpable lack of yoga practitioners in the country and if the propagation of yoga to persons abroad is left to this small set, the practice will indeed be threatened. Another undesirable effect of giving yoga a GI might be the precedent that it could set. Maybe states in South India will claim a GI for Bharatnatyam and Brazil for the Samba. Then, maybe it would transgress to major sports and all too soon, several activities will turn into ones that are so severely protected that there won’t be any development or growth in them. It must be acknowledged that over time most traditional practices and activities undergo changes and improvise all due to the introduction of foreign ideas and new methods; The granting of a GI would cause this process to stagnate.
There is sound reasoning for why GIs are restricted to mainly agricultural products, wines and handicraft; or to put more broadly, to goods and products. To import this protection to yoga, or any other similar activity would be dangerous for its existence. Therefore, while the proposal to give yoga a GI is with good intention to better the image of India and ‘claim from the western world what is rightfully India’s’, an acceptance of this proposal might just serve as a death knell for yoga. Thus, it is quite fortunate that the precedent on such GIs is non-existent and that there are no ongoing negotiations on Treaties between States or legislations of countries that propose to extend GIs to non-goods or traditional spiritual activities.