When we heard the streaming online company YogaGlo was trying to patent the way they filmed classes, we thought it was a joke.
For those of you who are out of the loop, this is their revolutionary new method; [the] “look and feel” of a YogaGlo online streaming class is comprised of the following elements that all must be present in conjunction with one another: position of camera, position of the teacher, position of the mats relative to the camera and the teacher, an open corridor down the middle, the teacher must be facing the camera, the students must be facing the teacher, etc." according to the statement they posted.
Or as marketing and branding consultant for yoga studios Adrien Edwards said, “it’s like trying to patent the way you organize how people sit in church – pastor at the front and people looking towards him. Unfortunately, it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.”
Once YogaGlo filed, they sent out dozens of cease and desist letters, they told Todd Wolfenberg Director of YogaInternational, the online magazine of The Himalayan Institute (including one to a teacher in Canada who teaches a charity class for cancer). [The letter] “was very simple and just informed us of their patents and that we infringed upon them. We later had a followup call where they asked us to remove the content, which we did not do because we do not feel that their patent will be accepted, nor do we feel what they have done is a unique invention,” he later emailed me.
Is the organization of the class unusual? Check out this video of Pattabhi Jois that was shot years ago.
Is the camera angle unique? “There is nothing special about the way they have filmed the class, nor about the particular combination of elements for an online class. They involve a fixed camera, a teacher facing the camera in front of the class, mats spaced apart, with students facing the teacher. This technique has been used since the beginning of filmmaking, going back to the first films of D.W. Griffith at the beginning of the 1900's,” says Bette Gordon, a Film Professor at Columbia University and Supervisor of the Directing Program, who watched two YogaGlo classes.
But it is scary getting a letter like this – especially if you don’t have a stack of money sitting around to hire an intellectual property lawyer. “We were flabbergasted by this broad, non-descript patent,” says Wolfenberg. It is clearly a way of monopolizing the filming of this business and that is pretty shocking.”
Richard Karpel, President of the Yoga Alliance, who has issued a petition urging Derik Mills, founder of YogaGlo, to withdraw his patent because “the idea that someone could own a patent like this is unconscionable. Our goal is to keep them from getting it.” So far, it has been signed by over 13,000 people.
Patent applications for “ways of doing business” have flooded the US Government Patent Office. Of course some companies actually come up with innovative and new ways to do things, but many know that they can either use these to shake down the competition or bully their way into owning the playing field.
“Most yogis don’t understand the complexities of patent law but they understand that that YogaGlo shouldn’t be able to own it and are very, very angry. It is not in the spirit of yoga,” says Karpel.
Yoga has been around about 6000 years, continually evolving like fashion, retail and film. (Kubrik didn’t even patent the steady cam first used in the Shining) These things are “open source” says Brian Ratte, founder of online streaming company YogaVibes, meaning that people take from them, refashion them, make something new – that is one of the spiritual elements of yoga. It is open to all comers and naturally keeps evolving.
No one patented blocks, ropes, mats, or the standard rope wall – and that is good because Michael Hayes of Buddha Bodies has just redesigned a wall to allow very heavy people to feel safe working in hanging asanas. Would he have been able to do that if he’d had to pay a licensing fee, probably not.
The real question is: can YogaGlo get this patent? Zak Shusterman, an Intellectual Property Lawyer, says that the US Government office has gotten “really, really stringent about these “method of doing business” patents [unlike invention patents] especially in the online domain because they have to show something that is “novel, useful, and non-obvious. Patents like this one are looked upon with disdain because there is very little here that could meet that criterion.”
One hot topic in the patent world is that folks are now using them to extort fees from people who are actually being productive, added Shusterman. The government is aware of this, but sometimes they screw up. As it did when Bikram was granted a patent for 26 yoga positions, rapaciously went after studios using them in hot yoga classes, until his patent was rescinded.
So what does YogaGlo's Derik Mills think of all of this negative publicity? Is it worth it or will he lose more customers because his actions are considered by many to be audacious, avaricious and ignorant?
In his online biography he writes that he learned about yoga “at university and discovered a fascinating, universal wisdom tradition that deeply resonated with me.” (Maybe he was out sick when they discussed the yamas and niyamas – like asteya and aparigraha.)
Mills says to connect with him on Facebook. I did. Not surprisingly, he didn’t connect back with me. His pr agent Emily from Symphony PR - which also represents Nestle, GM, Mitsubishi Motors - returned my email by quoting the statement at the top. When I asked her for more information, she didn’t respond.
What is being done? First “Vote with your dollars. Take your business elsewhere if your values don’t align with theirs,” says Brian Ratte of YogaVibes. Be More Yogic, another online streamer, is having a contest for the most insane yoga patents, and they are giving away a free month of yoga to anyone who cancels their YogaGlo membership.
Great moves, but we in living in the real world now, and it is time for someone to draw a line in the sand, and that is exactly what the Yoga Alliance is doing. According to a press release Richard Karpel just put out, “YogaGlo has submitted not one, but two patent applications for essentially the same idea, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has already issued preliminary communications in which all the claims in both applications have been rejected as being unpatentable.
So when YogaGlo sent a cease and disist letter to Yoga International last month, they already knew that the USPTO had specifically rejected all the pending claims upon which the letter was based.” (Talk about ballsy!)
Secondly, the claims by YogaGlo are inconsistent with their patents. “Yoga teachers or studio owners don’t even need to distribute a DVD or stream it to violate YogaGlo’s claim; setting up their studio in the manner described in the patent application claims would be enough to trigger a violation,” continues Karpel’s statement. (Yup, you read that sentence right – filming a DVD, or even organizing a class with the teacher standing in front etc. would be owned by YogaGlo and studios would have to pay them to do it.)
Unfortunately both Congress and the White House agree that the patent system is broken and so the Yoga Alliance will have their lawyers take the case to the United States Patent office if YogaGlo does not withdraw the application.
In the meantime: Let YogaGlo and their teachers know how you feel about this on their website and Facebook pages and sign YA’s petition. Studio owners: Let Richard Karpel, President of YA, know if you have received a cease and desist letter.
We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.