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Why was Mother Teresa's uniform trademarked?

You may be surprised to hear that the uniform associated with Mother Teresa has been trademarked!

For the best part of half a century, Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who spend her life ministering to the poor and needy in the Indian city of Calcutta wore a simple white sari with three distinctive stripes on the borders. This famous Christian devotee died in 1997 and was made a saint by the Vatican last year.

This month we have learned that her “famous” sari has been trademarked in order to prevent “unfair” use by people for commercial purposes. This seems to have been done fairly quietly by the Indian government, in a move which now recognises the sari as the intellectual property of the Missionaries of Charity.

Biswajit Sarkar, a Kolkata-based lawyer who works pro-bono for the order, reported that he had applied for the trademark in 2013. "It just came to my mind that the colour-identified blue border of the sari had to be protected to prevent any future misuse for commercial purposes. If you want to wear or use the colour pattern in any form, you can write to us and if we are convinced that there is no commercial motive, we will allow it".  

This seems in line with Mother Teresa’s wishes, which were apparently that her name (and, presumably, her image) should not be exploited for commercial purposes.  However, it does raise interesting questions about their strategy.  The immediate problem is that this mark only seems to be registered in India, so it is not clear how they could use it to prevent abuses in other countries.  The charity has registered the trade mark ‘MOTHER TERESA’ for a range of charitable services, as EU registration no. 012443305, but the sari design seems to be free for all in the EU at least.

Also, trade marks are valid if the mark is in commercial use (to some degree), which is precisely the kind of activity that the charity is not willing to permit.  So there must be a question mark in this respect.  The Gideons once sought to register their name, but this was refused by the UK Courts as they were not proposing to provide a service for money or money’s worth; the Judge memorably commented that anticipated rewards in heaven were not “money’s worth”.  We suspect that many theologians would heartily endorse that sentiment.  

So it is not yet clear how this trademark on the famous blue striped sari will be enforced. In the meantime, a simple Google search for “unisex Mother Teresa dress” reveals plenty of shopping opportunities for look-alike saris, dresses and blouses.


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