Summary: Can new-age teachings be trade secrets?
New-age self-help groups such as the Arica Institute often go to great lengths to make sure their revelations are for paying customers only. Many require students to sign confidentiality agreements, or protect their documents with high-tech devices and guards. Other programs prevent both students and teachers from keeping printed materials; anyone who wants to look at the Aricans’ unpublished materials in U.S. Copyright Office, for instance, has to sign a special copyright notice.
Some groups have also sought the protection of copyright law. In a recent article in the Buffalo Law Review, American University Washington College of Law professor Walter Effross reviews the legal arguments that fringe spiritual groups—he’s careful not to call them cults—have used to prevent former disciples from spreading the word too freely. Just like the formula for Coke, the path to enlightenment can be a trade secret, they’ve argued.
The courts have agreed, at least in part. While ideas about illumination can’t be copyrighted, the specific language describing them can be. Plaintiffs from the Church of Scientology to the Star’s Edge have been vindicated in court.
But Effross thinks the groups aren’t simply trying to protect a cash cow: New-age teachings can be traumatic, as they can undermine a devotee’s worldview and sense of reality. Without structure and guidance, the novice may be bereft of any system of belief at all. “This stuff is not a parlor game,” he says. “It’s not to be played around with.”