Monocolumn: Yoga Protectionism
Modern patents on ancient knowledge have caused concern in India.
For centuries, Indians have been sun saluting, warrior posing and applying the natural antiseptic turmeric to their wounds. This ancient know-how has long been common knowledge on the subcontinent.
However, when modern day companies began applying for – and winning – patents over this data, it became clear that action needed to be taken. Enter V.K. Gupta, a senior advisor with India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who suggested building a comprehensive database of ancient knowledge.
That was nine years ago, and since then more than 200,000 remedies and other items have been entered into the knowledge bank, known as the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL).
The office has had success in seeing numerous patents worldwide overturned. Recent cases include a Chinese firm seeking a patent over a bird flu remedy including mint; a Spanish firm looking to treat vitiligio with melon peel and even pharma giant Unilever, which wanted to take out a patent on a cardiovascular tonic based on apple and grape juice.
This month, some 900 yoga poses were the latest to be filed after laborious study and translation of ancient texts such as the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the Shiva Samhita and the Bhagavad Gita. The poses were eventually identified as ancient knowledge, and therefore not able to be patented.
“We are now videographing the yoga poses, and in coming months we’ll integrate these into the TKDL,” says Mr Gupta.
“Our objective is not to take out patents over these, but rather, to stop wrong patents.”
Specifically, he is talking about the founder of the Bikram form of yoga’s move eight years ago to take out US copyright [or patents] over a number of poses.
“I think it is obligatory on the international patent systems to look back and see where they’ve made an error and try to rectify that,” he says.
“The postures and positions in Bikram yoga, if they’re defined in ancient texts, how can anyone claim the right to them?”
While the TKDL’s most well-known subject of protection is yoga, it was originally designed to catalogue ancient Indian medicinal remedies contained within three systems: Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha. The texts have been laboriously translated from their original languages of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Tamil and Urdu and the knowledge will be available in English, German, French, Chinese and Japanese, to make the information freely available to patent offices around the world.
“This library is about ensuring people do not take personal right over public knowledge,” says Mr Gupta.
“They should not be able to make money where they are not entitled to it.”
Aarti Betigeri is a regular contributor to Monocle, based in New Delhi