Owning Enlightenment: Proprietary Spirituality in the 'New Age' Marketplace

Walter A. Effross, American University Washington College of Law


This article analyzes recent attempts made by the Arica Institute, the Church of Scientology, and Star's Edge - reaching, in each case, the relevant Circuit Court of Appeals - to apply intellectual property law to prevent the unauthorized dissemination of their spiritual teachings and techniques. As the article details, such concerns have been raised in connection with a wide range of traditional and modern practices, including Zen, Kabbalah, Yoga, Sufism, Christian Science, est, Reiki, the Gurdjieff Work, A Course in Miracles, and Transcendental Meditation. The article draws on a variety of primary sources, including trial transcripts, appellate pleadings, Web sites, confidentiality agreements, rare publications by and about these groups, and an interview conducted with Arica's founder. It identifies and evaluates ten justifications for spiritual secrecy, including the claim that individuals prematurely exposed to advanced texts and techniques (or to misinterpretations of them) might suffer spiritual and psychological harm. Also discussed in this context are: special concerns of authorship, fair use, trade secret law, and the First Amendment, particularly in the era of the Internet; parallels to secrecy and malpractice issues in the psychotherapeutic professions; the patentability and copyrightability of meditative movements; and the protection of spiritual materials as traditional knowledge.