The recent granting of a patent to Yogaglo - a business that offers online yoga classes - has created some controversy. To yoga folk, it seems that protecting a certain way of offering yoga is at odds with the general idea of yoga - union, not separation. Some critics of the patent state that this time it has “gone too far” - that although they see value in intellectual property rights, Yogaglo has overstepped, in some way.
The core issue to me not whether Yogaglo has gone too far, because the answer to that question simply depends on where your interests lie. The core issue to me is not whether intellectual property is a good idea, but whether the idea of property at all is a good idea.
We can trace the idea of property back to the agricultural revolution approximately 10,000 years ago. Prior to this, humans were mostly nomadic hunters and gatherers. Tribal societies did not have an idea of property in the sense of owning land. Rather, as was explained to me by a historian friend of mine, many of the nomadic peoples of what we now call Canada had an idea of - “centers of gravity” - that hunting grounds extended out from oneself in a diminishing gravitational field, so that the land was not owned in perpetuity by anyone, but that individual requirements for nourishment were respected. This wonderful idea of course was no longer possible to implement after my ancestors in Canada appropriated the land from the indigenous peoples.
It is not clear whether humans went from hunting and collecting to farming in one great movement, or whether it was a slow process. When you walk through the forest collecting food, there I feel an innate sense of gratitude and wonder at the abundance given us. Industrial farming now tries to harvest as much as possible from land that has fences around it to protect it, and even the seeds - life itself - are often owned. There seems to be no recognition of the gift of life here - only expectation. That is one result of property and ownership.
It might help to pause ask the question “In what ways has ownership been a benefit to mankind?” Has it been a benefit to:
- The earth?
How many lives have been lost through the final step of nationalistic expansion? Is war not a tool to gain more property?
The wonderful technology of yoga was created before the idea of formal intellectual property rights existed. Yoga cross-fertilized itself through the free sharing of ideas, and philosophies became stronger for it. We still have the names and works of the sages responsible for some of the articulations of yoga, and we can thank them in our hearts. I wonder where we’d be today if Shankara was not able to borrow and re-organize ideas from earlier sages for fear of being sued? Copyright - literally the right to copy - only came into being after the invention of the printing press, and copyright was limited then to just a few years. That has changed radically now. You can make a good living as a lawyer today buying the rights to patents and then suing those who might infringe on those patents in their creation of something new.
So, many of us are infuriated at this next step into ownership Yogaglo has taken. But it is just another step in a long journey into separation. As the author and speaker Charles Eisenstein has pointed out -When you no longer look around you and can say “This is me!” - you are motivated to say “This is mine”.