Responding to reports that the Indian government was planning to lodge a complaint, the United States clarified on Thursday that no patent had been issued in that country on yoga positions. “The US government has conducted a search of all patents issued and no US patents on yoga positions have been identified,” a statement issued by the US embassy said.
Embassy spokesperson David Kennedy added that no pending patents on yoga positions have been identified, either, although “copyrights on written material have been granted”. The statement further added that patents have been granted only on “new and non-obvious devices that may be used in conjunction with yoga”.
Officials in the Health Ministry’s Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), which was at the forefront of the move to lodge a complaint, said they were happy that the US government had gone through this verification and clarified matters. However, they added, they would continue to examine some patents, copyrights and trademarks that they are suspicious about, and would raise the issue with the US government if required.
The ancient Indian spiritual system of yoga has become a fitness fad in the US, espoused by many celebrities. It is a $3 billion a year industry, prompting many like the Indian-born fitness guru Bikram Chaudhury to apply for patents on yoga postures and yoga-related contraptions.
According to recent media reports, the US has issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga-related trademarks. However, it was the patenting of yoga postures that Indian yoga practitioners and intellectual property rights experts found outrageous.
As a result, the Department of AYUSH, wrote to the Commerce Ministry, and it was agreed last week that the Indian embassy would take up the issue with the US trade representative and the Patents Office. “Yoga is our ancient heritage,” says Shiv Basant, Joint Secretary, Department of AYUSH, “but many countries have issued patents on it. We have strong objection to this, and will raise the matter with the governments concerned.”
The dispute has once again exposed the differing attitudes towards yoga – and more generally, towards intellectual property rights on traditional knowledge – between India and the US. In the past, disputes have arisen over patenting of products that have been used as traditional remedies in India for millennia. In 2005, the EU had revoked a patent of a US company on a fungicide derived from neem. Prior to that, the US Patent Office had revoked a patent on turmeric after a challenge was filed by the New Delhi-based Council for Agriculture Research (CSIR).
To protect indigenous knowledge and prevent ‘bio-piracy’, the Indian government set up a task force to compile a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in 2002. This library will list 4,500 medicinal plants and Ayurvedic remedies, and will digitalise 1,500 yoga postures and exercises. Work on 150 common kriyas and asanas is likely to be completed by the end of this year.