IP claims and yogic knowledge: can anybody own yoga?

by cristinaberra

Yoga being an ancient practice and a timeless philosophy, decades ago nobody would have thought it to be affected by intellectual property rights. However, due to a growing interest from western consumers to more orientalised health and physical disciplines, recent times have shown a higher and higher demand for a more contemporary and commercialised yoga practice.

Trademarks, copyrights and patents on yoga-related products and services are by now countless and this is the ultimate example of how the increasing use of intellectual property in this field is the result of yoga becoming a global phenomenon, where the different players try to distinguish themselves by making their practises, schools, goods and services a recognisable brand and a profitable market.

An obvious consequence of this trend is the proliferation of yoga related IP disputes. One of the most recent and most debated ones involved the Indian Guru Bikram Choudhury, widely known for having developed one of the most profitable – and possibly most highly IP protected – style of yoga, the so-called “Bikram Yoga”. The dispute concerned the copyrightability of a sequence of twenty-six asanas and two breathing exercises, arranged in a particular order and performed in a space heated at 40 degrees (called the “Sequence”), which was eventually denied by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.[1]

Yoga related IP claims have brought international attention to the question of whether a traditional spiritual practice such as yoga can be subject to private property or resides in the public domain.

Even if there is not an accepted international definition of traditional knowledge, it can be described as “knowledge, know-how, skills and practises that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity”. [2] Traditional knowledge is not originally created to be exploited but it is intended to be used within the community from which it developed and whose traditions and beliefs it embodies.

Recently, extensive debates in the IP scene have involved traditional knowledge issues and the possible measures to be taken in order to prevent its misappropriation. India’s concerns for the privatisation of yogic knowledge can certainly be connected with the government’s anxiety over the piracy of its national cultural heritage, which over time has been provoked by various IP claims from western companies on traditional agricultural and botanical products, such as basmati rice, turmeric and neem.

In order to prevent such attempts of appropriating what it is part of their tradition and openly known in their territories from time immemorial, in 2001 India created a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), which essentially acts as a digital repository of Indian medical wisdom. The database includes Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Yoga and it is intended to be disseminated to IP agencies all around the world. [3]

Indian experts have been attempting to document centuries-old yoga techniques and it is said that over one thousands of yoga poses have been identified so far and are little by little being added to the Digital Library. However, if the TKDL is seen by many as a necessary tool to protect yogic knowledge, it is still unknown if it will be sufficient to challenge future IP claims on it. In fact, if there is no doubt that yoga is an Indian contribution to the world, it is argued if India can, for this reason, act to control all knowledge and practice related to it.[4]

What it is certain is that the commercialisation of yoga – and perhaps some forms of privatisation – is an on-going phenomenon that will not stop to develop, and intellectual property, for better or for worse, will inevitably be involved in the process. In this context, however, the worldwide yoga community should always bear in mind one of the basics of the yogic teaching and act accordingly: yoga is for everybody.

Cristina Berra

Assistant Editor, QMJIP

[1] On the basis of the copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy codified by Section 102(b) of the US Copyright Act, the Court held that the “Sequence” cannot be subject of copyright protection, being it “an idea, process or system designed to improve health” (find the full text of the decision here). Copyright protection is in fact limited to the expression of ideas and does not extend to the ideas themselves. Therefore, if Bikram Choudhury still enjoys copyright protection on his books concerning the “Sequence”, he does not have any protection on the “Sequence” itself and cannot prevent others from teaching it.

[2] http://www.wipo.int/tk/en/tk/

[3] http://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2011/03/article_0002.html

[4] Krishna Ravi Srinivas, ‘Intellectual Property Rights and Traditional Knowledge: The Case of Yoga’ [2007] 42(27/28) Economic and Political Weekly 2869