The well-known sari of Mother Teresa, with its iconic blue stripe, has been trademarked to prevent its unfair use for commercial purposes.

Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who worked with the poor in the Indian city of Kolkata, wore a distinctive sari – which is now instantly recognised around the world. The simple white sari with three blue stripes on the border, one thicker than the rest, has become the religious uniform of the senior nuns who work for the Missionaries of Charity (the order Mother Teresa founded nearly 70 years ago).

Mother Teresa’s name was originally trademarked two decades ago. To further protect the iconic identity of Mother Teresa and her order from commercial exploitation, the nun’s former lawyer, Mr Sarkar (who still acts for the Missionaries of Charity), recently submitted a trademark application also covering the uniform. It was formally granted in 2016, making it the first time a religious uniform had ever been trademarked anywhere in the world. The argument for the trademark was to protect the reputation of the order and to stop the dilution of its global identity. The order now owns the exclusive intellectual property of the design of the sari.

This trademark highlights the importance of maintaining the integrity of your brand image, regardless of whether you are a business, a not for profit organisation or a self-brand. The granting of this trademark application could potentially lay the foundations for more religious orders seeking trademarks to protect their name and identity from being exploited by others for commercial purposes. It’s also interesting that this trademark succeeded, given that it’s based on a distinct colour – in this case, Mother Teresa’s former lawyer has succeeded where previously brands have failed.

It will be intriguing to watch how this trademark is enforced. There are already variations of Mother Teresa’s sari available on the market and banks, schools and religious books are already using Mother Teresa’s identity for commercial gain and to promote their brand image. One school, which has no connection to Missionaries of Charity, has even contacted the order to complain about late salary payment – a perfect example of brand confusion. Mr Sarkar has publicly stated that 'extreme' legal action will be taken against any person or organisation misrepresenting the Missionaries of Charity - regardless of whether they are doing it for commercial gain or not.

To see more of this month's newsbytes, please see here. 

For more information, please contact Nicholas de Figueiredo.