IP, Religion, Culture and Politics
Religion and charity
It’s been reported that the Roman Catholic order the Missionaries of Charity, which is associated with arguably the world’s most famous nun, Mother Teresa, has registered, as a trade mark, the blue and white colour combination (three blue stripes, one thicker than the other two) that appeared on the sari or habit that Mother Teresa wore every day for 50 years, and which is still worn today by nuns in the order. The colour combination has apparently been registered as a trade mark for clothing and textiles, as well as stationery and charitable services. It’s reported that leprosy patients in Kolkata weave some 4 000 saris featuring the colour combination every year, and that these saris are distributed to nuns worldwide.
The order apparently sought trade mark registration for defensive purposes rather than commercial ones. It seems that a number of parties have been falsely seeking to associate themselves with the Missionaries of Charity – a school, a bank, several shops in Kolkata that sell Mother Teresa books and memorabilia, and fundraisers. It’s been announced that the order will sympathetically consider requests to use the trade mark from those who are proposing to make non-commercial use of it.
Colours and colour combinations can, of course, be registered as trade marks, but it is very difficult. Not surprisingly, the authorities take the view that colours should be available to all, and it is only in exceptional circumstances where a colour or colour combination that has, in fact, become solely associated with one enterprise in a particular industry will be granted a monopoly. The news reports do intimate that the Indian authorities may have been quite lenient when it came to the applications filed by the Missionaries of Charity.
Culture and fashion
In South Africa, there’s been a media storm surrounding Louis Vuitton’s adoption of culturally significant Basotho blanket designs in men’s fashion items and garments that apparently sell in South Africa for an eye-watering ZAR33 000. The question being asked is whether this is cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation. As the following quotes show, South African designers feel very strongly about the matter:
“African artists are also artists and designers … it is not just something blank that everyone has the right to come and take.”
“We are angry because we feel exploited … it’s not just that they are inspired by us … that’s a compliment, but you need to take it a bit further and involve us otherwise its theft.”
The use of the Basotho blanket design raises issues of trade mark law and design law – both offer opportunities for protection. But it also raises the vexed and controversial area of protection for traditional knowledge.
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