Protecting Traditional Knowledge: Pathways to the Future

Date period
1 June 2006

SummaryThe present study examines recent trends and proposals for the protection of traditional knowledge. It is the latest contribution of the ICTSD Programme on Intellectual Property Rights and Sustainable Development to a better understanding of the proper role of intellectual property in a knowledgebased economy.

In modern societies, identifying, registering and protecting intellectual property rights (IPRs) has become one of the key drivers of business competitiveness in international trade. While intellectual property is today’s competitive instrument in global markets, exploiting and effectively protecting it is complex and difficult. Furthermore, not all knowledge, innovation and creation lends itself to the existing models of industrial and post industrial societies and more specifically the IP system. In this context, the value and usefulness of traditional knowledge (TK) including domesticated seeds, traditional food products, alternative medicine, cosmetics, textiles and crafts has been widely recognized. However, there is much debate on how best to protect such a knowledge system considering its multifaceted nature as well as its implications for various policy issues and sustainable development in general.

As developing countries continue implementing intellectual property-related treaties at the multilateral, regional and bilateral level, appropriate capacity building will be crucial if these countries are to effectively use intellectual property and other tools in pursuit of their sustainable development goals. Exploring ways and means to protect and promote traditional innovations and creations at the local, national and international level and ensure the effective participation of holders of traditional knowledge will be an important part of that challenge.

This second ICTSD study on “Protecting Traditional Knowledge: Pathways to the Future”, provides an overview of main arguments and proposals made in the CBD COP, WIPO’s IGC and in the WTO with respect to protection of TK. The study seeks to review progress in diplomacy and policy formulation and identify suitable solutions that have been put forward in the international fora for TK protection. The study also proposes that to engage in “forum management” in relation to genetic resources issues and TK protection might be more effective than indulging in forum shopping and run the risk of contradictory outcomes.

The premise of ICTSD’s work in this field, like that of its joint project with UNCTAD, is that IPRs have never been more economically and politically important or controversial than they are today. Patents, copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs, integrated circuits and geographical indications are frequently mentioned in discussions and debates on such diverse topics as public health, food security, education, trade, industrial policy, TK, biodiversity, biotechnology, the Internet, the entertainment and media industries. In a knowledge-based economy, there is no doubt that a better understanding of IPRs is indispensable to informed policy making in virtually all areas of human development.

Empirical evidence on the role of intellectual property protection in promoting innovation and growth in general remains limited and inconclusive. Conflicting views also persist on the impacts of IPRs on a country’s development prospects. Some argue that in a modern economy, the minimum standards laid down in TRIPS will bring benefits to developing countries by creating the incentive structure necessary for knowledge generation and diffusion, technology transfer and private investment flows. Others counter that intellectual property, especially some of its elements such as the patenting regime, will adversely affect the pursuit of sustainable development strategies by lifting the prices of essential drugs out of the reach of the poor; limiting the availability of educational materials for students in developing countries; legitimising the piracy of traditional knowledge; and undermining the self-reliance of resource-poor farmers.

It is urgent, therefore, to ask several questions: how can developing countries use intellectual property tools to advance their development strategy? What are the key concerns surrounding IPR issues for developing countries? What are the specific difficulties they face in intellectual property negotiations? Is intellectual property directly relevant to sustainable development and to the achievement of agreed international development goals? Do developing countries, especially least-developed ones, have the capacity to formulate their negotiating positions and become wellinformed negotiating partners? It is to address some of these questions that the ICTSD Programme on Intellectual Property and Sustainable Development was launched in July 2000. One central objective has been to facilitate the emergence of a critical mass of well-informed stakeholders in developing countries - including decision makers, negotiators but also representatives from the private sector and civil society - who will be able to define their own sustainable human development objectives in the field of IPRs and effectively advance them at the national and international levels.

We hope you will find this study a useful contribution to the debate on IPRs and sustainable development, and particularly with regard to current discussions and negotiations of the protection and promotion of traditional knowledge at varying levels.