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Mother Teresa’s Sari becomes a Registered Trade Mark

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Mother Teresa died on 5th September 1997, in Calcutta, India. In her will she outlined that her likeness should not be used after her death for trade purposes, according to Biswajit Sarkar, an India-based lawyer who undertakes pro-bono work for the Missionaries of Charity, a religious Order founded by Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa was known for wearing her characteristic white sari with three blue stripes on the borders, one thicker than the rest; this blue-and-white striped sari is woven specifically for the Missionaries of Charity by leprosy patients living in a home run by the Order. Nearly 4000 saris are woven every year. These garments are then distributed to nuns all over the world who work for the Missionaries of Charity and they are worn as a religious uniform. When Mr Sarkar heard about unauthorised sales of blue-and-white striped saris resembling that worn by Mother Teresa, and about instances of people trying to use Mother Teresa’s name for commercial gain, he applied to register a colour trade mark for the blue-and-white sari in India.

The trade mark applications for the blue-and-white striped pattern were made in December 2013 for stationery items, textiles and social and charitable services.  The trade mark secured registration in relation to social and charitable services in November 2015, followed by stationery and textiles in September 2016. The Government of India discreetly recognised the colour trade mark for the blue-and-white sari as the intellectual property of the Missionaries of Charity so it did not attract public attention. However, although the Missionaries of Charity are keen to avoid negative publicity, awareness of the trade mark registration was raised in order to deter people from misusing the blue-and-white pattern.

In recent years there have been many examples of alleged misuse of the trade mark. For example, teachers at some schools named after Mother Teresa had been writing to the Missionaries of Charity complaining about late salary payments, unaware their schools were not affiliated. A cooperative bank named itself after the nun. Religious books were being published with the striped trimming. Also, memorabilia is often sold under the suggestion that it is connected to the Order which misleads buyers into believing that the proceeds are donated to the Missionaries of Charity when they are not.

Mr Sarkar has threatened to take “severe” legal action against any unauthorised use. However, it is not clear how this will be enforced; particularly in light of the fact that this is a first for any religious uniform worldwide. The trademarking of the sari has been disparaged by critics of Mother Teresa; arguing that it should not be possible to monopolise and exploit rights in a sari, widely accepted as traditional Indian dress. Nevertheless others disagree, highlighting that there is nothing wrong in trademarking a distinctive and iconic design like Mother Teresa’s sari because it relates to a specific striped pattern, not all saris as a type of dress.

It will be interesting to see whether any other charitable organisations will follow in the footsteps of the Missionaries of Charity. As this trade mark only covers India, it is believed that Mr Sarkar intends to continue obtaining trade mark protection for the distinctive uniform of Mother Teresa’s Order in other countries. Utilising the IP system in this way not only stays true to the last will and testament of Mother Teresa; it also emphasises the importance of protecting the unique blue-and-white striped pattern, which acts as a distinctive symbolic identity of the Missionaries of Charity and avoids dilution or unauthorised use by the public.

Amelia Skelding 8 February 2018

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