Yoga and IP: Stretched too far?

Yoga and IP

Yoga is one of the oldest physical and spiritual exercises known to mankind. It is collective knowledge and has been believed to be in existence from around 2500 B.C. Come to think of it, there should be no intellectual property battle over it – it is India’s traditional knowledge and no single entity or company should be allowed to monopolise any yoga asana or posture in the form of a patent or copyright, as the case may be. However, practically and legally, it isn’t this straight forward and answers can only be sought by analysing, inter alia, copyright over yoga postures, impact of India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) and the current position of law in light of the latest Delhi High Court judgment.

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library

Before discussing the issue of copyright, it is important to know of the existence of TKDL and what it seeks to achieve. For the uninitiated, TKDL is an initiative of the Indian government pursuant to the basmati and turmeric patent disputes in the USA. There has been attempt by TKDL to compile and consolidate information on Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Yoga, in digitized format in five international languages. This is advantageous as it makes it easier for patent offices to find prior art relating to any of the above processing patent applications and also, it acts as a safeguard when persons are misappropriating  traditional knowledge. In light of the Bikram Yoga case, (discussed further) TKDL along with yoga gurus and other experts have documented over 900 asana in order to prevent anyone from monopolising over any yoga-related postures or asana.

Bikram Yoga Case & it’s after-effect in US

There were three or more of lawsuits filed by Bikram Yoga on the issue of trademarks and copyright infringement by other persons performing hot yoga. This questioned the very basis of copyrighting yoga postures in the US, giving rise to various debates. TYoga_Patent_India_Stretchedhe prominent fact in this case was that Bikram Yoga designed a certain sequence of 26 yoga asana and two unique breathing techniques which were performed in a hot room, thus popularising a new form of yoga termed as ‘hot yoga’.

In one of the cases, there was mediation and settlement between the parties. However, in another, the court dealt with two pertinent issues – a) with reference to the literary and audio-visual works, the court observed that copyright exists over expression of facts and ideas NOT on the facts and ideas themselves; b) mere compilation of exercises or asanas without any creative addition would only make it a system or procedure, disentitling it from copyright protection. On the point of copyrighting it as a choreographic work under §102(a)(4) of the US Copyright Law, what needs to be considered is whether a work is actually a dance or has a particular sequence, as in the case of a ballet or the like, thus creating a doubt whether exercises in form of yoga will be entitled to protection as choreographic works.

In June 2012, on review of its legislative history and the after effect of the Bikram Yoga cases, the US Copyright Office made it amply clear that yoga poses and sequences are not entitled to copyright protection under the law. Later in December 2012, the Federal Court of US overruled copyright on specific sequences of Bikram Yoga and made an interesting observation that there is a distinction between a creative work that compiles a series of exercises and the compilation of exercises itself the former is copyrightable but the latter is not.

Latest Delhi HC judgment

In the case of Institute of Inner Studies (IIS) v. Charlotte Anderson, the court , dealt with the following intellectual property related issues when IIS claimed copyright in ‘Pranic Healing’ techniques and also a trademark over the same. The Delhi HC discussed the issues of originality and idea-expression dichotomy in detail.

a) Copyright

Copyright was claimed over the books and CDs detailing the yoga asanas and a prohibitory injunction was sought against the defendants for the performance and implementation of techniques of pranic healing. Also, the plaintiffs sought protection of exercises as choreography in dramatic works under the copyright law.

On the issue of originality, the Supreme Court case of Eastern Book Company v. Modak was referred to in order to establish that there needs to be a minimal degree of creativity in order to entail protection under the law and in the present case, pranic healing is neither a new or creative technique as it has been a part of indian medicine from time immemorial.In the case of RG Anand v. Delux Films, a test had been established to assess the idea-expression dichotomy and the test appropriate to this case would be – “where the theme is the same but presented and treated differently so that the subsequent work becomes a new work, no question of violation of copyright arises”. This can be best explained with reference to Bollywood movies which by and large have the same theme (hero and heroine in love with a villain trying to separate them and finally, the hero jubilantly fighting his way to give us a happy ending). Now, the theme is the idea but it may be expressed in several different ways by several directors. Therefore no single person can claim monopoly over the idea per se and the copyright will be limited to the expression of that particular idea.

The judge also relied upon the Bikram yoga cases and on analysis came to the conclusion that whenever copyright protection is sought on works in books and literature describing useful art, principle, historical fact or events or mode of performing ancient exercise or any other process for that matter, it is only the language used that will acquire protection and not the method or sequence described therein. Thus, in the present case, IIS would not be allowed to monopolise on performance of asanas or techniques of pranic healing. Further, if it to be argued that modern pranic healing techniques are entitled to protection and that the expression of the idea is novel, the fact remains that copyright is granted on the basis of originality which these techniques very obviously lack. Lastly, the court clarified that the novel processes, methods, principles, manner of performing the art or exercise are all the realm of the Patents and not the copyright.

b) Dramatic works

Another question raised was whether yoga asanas or pranic healing techniques are entitled protection as dramatic works as defined under Section 2(h) of the Copyright Act. From a bare reading, the definition is an inclusive one which opens possibilities for arguments that such exercises are choreography. Based on findings in other cases, the court concluded the following conditions would be necessary to constitute a dramatic work – capable of being physically performed or accompanied by action, fixation of the matter in writing and a predetermined plan. When there is a slightest doubt of any of these requirements not being fulfilled, for example, in news or sports or techniques like yoga and pranic healing, it was held that is does not prima facie fall into the category of dramatic works.

c) Trademark

The term ‘pranic healing’, at the outset is a generic term and lacks distinctiveness, which is one of the main criteria for trademark registration under Section 9 of the Trademarks Act. The court drew a prima facie inference that the claims of registration were inconsequential as they lacked distinctive character. Also, the court noted that the registration had been secured by making false claims as to proprietorship which questions the registration of the mark in the first place. It was held that there was no case of trademark infringement as the plaintiffs held no monopoly over the term ‘pranic healing’.

Conclusion

The Delhi HC judgment should be appreciated in its entirety for bringing forth various aspects of copyright law which hasn’t been dealt with in the recent past. It clarifies the position on the idea-expression dichotomy and comes in time to save India’s traditional treasury by clarifying that yoga asanas and pranic healing techniques aren’t capable of protection as a dramatic work. However, the bigger picture that needs attention is that yoga and pranic healing are a part of Indian traditional knowledge and their protection has become imperative at this point. It’ll be interesting to keep track of TKDL’s progress and  the balance between preservation of traditional knowledge and monopoly by claiming intellectual property.

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