Addressing the US Congress on 8 June 2016, the Indian Prime Minister Modi said yoga which has had its roots in India is being practiced by some 30 million people in the USA. And taking a dig at the US tendency to claim intellectual property rights on anything under the sun, he said India doesn’t claim any IPR on yoga.
IPR basically has three variants-- -patents, trademarks and copyrights. Patents is ruled out as far as yoga is concerned because it is an internationally accepted norm that in order to be patentable an invention must be novel, non-obvious and have utility. Novelty rules out prior use whereas yoga has been practiced in India for centuries as documented by the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) that has video graphed 250 postures and listed 1500 asanas (postures). However that doesn’t mean patents cannot be granted to yoga related devices and accessories as vividly brought out by the following statement in the Lok Sabha:
The United States Patents and Trade Mark Office (USPTO) database shows that it has granted as many as 168 patents to yoga-related devices and accessories used in conducting exercises that include yoga mattresses, grip blocks and yoga socks, besides some devices used for doing stretching exercises, Union Minister of State for Industry Ashwani Kumar has said in reply to a question in Lok Sabha
The same goes for trademarks and copyrights. The Minister Ashwani Kumar went on to add that:
Similarly, there are about 3,700 trademarks on yoga accessories which have been listed in the database registered and pending trade marks by the USPTO. However, the U.S. organization’s database does not show any pending case for grant of patent on yoga practiced in steam room. Yoga in steam room alluded in the last line of the Minister’s reply referred to an attempt made by an NRI Bikram to patent yoga done inside a 45 degree Celsius steam room which made Baba Ramdev fume, "how can traditional yoga taught and best practiced in Himalayan cold be taught and one inside a steaming room."
The danger yoga originating in India is facing from the West is not patent in one go but in a series of steps in the form of patents for devices and equipments facilitating yogic exercises and postures. The late BKS Iyengar who corrected many physical disabilities through corrective postures employed crude and make-shift props and prods which were, to be sure, effective. Alas he had patented them while he was in the US in the second half of his life. It is possible that some of these crude contraptions might have been converted into sophisticated and sleek devices and got patented. A time might come when it is not kosher to do yoga without these patented devices and equipments. That would be a sad blow for India.
The danger from trademarks and copyrights is not as much to the traditional Indian yoga because these are not central to its practice. There is no copyright on an idea which is the case with patents. Therefore the same form of yoga can be explained in different books and through different videos so long as they are not straight lifts from the existing books and videos.
The Firstpost story on Indian response to foreign onslaught on traditional Indian knowledge is enlightening . It brings out vividly how India has geared itself to thwarting attempts of the western or any other attempts at appropriating Indian traditional knowledge through its TKDL started in 2007 in response to the foreign attempts to appropriate neem and turmeric.
Following this, it was decided to form TKDL. Today its database has over 2.93 lakh medicines, their properties indicating that those have been traditionally used for cure in Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems. The information is also present in Spanish, German, English, Japanese and French languages.
The database is shared with the European Patent Office (EPO), United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), German Patent Office (GPO), Intellectual Property Australia (IPA), Japanese Patent Office (JPO) and Chile Patent Office (CPO) under a non-disclosure pact.
All these offices therefore have been put on notice -- don’t give any IPR especially patent at the drop of the hat
So far so good. But what India is doing is to guard its turf. It has succeeded in stopping the marauding foreigners on their tracks. Getting a patent issued to a US MNC revoked for turmeric, alone cost over a million dollars in legal expenses, travel and other costs. But the effort was worth it.
Modi on a deeper analysis it seems was more philosophical last night about India’s predicament-- not being proactive in the matter of registration of IPRs and being condemned for playing a seemingly negative role of thwarting western onslaught on Indian traditional knowledge.