It’s the Law: Examining Proposed International Protection of Traditional Knowledge

Recently, the World Intellectual Property Organization ended its annual Assembly meeting. Among the floated proposals, there was one that was particularly newsworthy. WIPO members agreed to work on developing a “legal instrument” that protects genetic knowledge, traditional knowledge and “traditional cultural expressions”.

WIPO’s statement is particularly important because the relationship between intellectual property laws and traditional knowledge has been tense. Traditional knowledge is frequently communally-owned but Western intellectual property regimes mandate individuality. As the name suggests, traditional knowledge is centuries-old whereas most intellectual property regimes necessitate originality. Sadly, this state of affairs has often led to parties stealing traditional knowledge or not properly compensating holders of traditional knowledge. In this regard, WIPO’s move is symbolic.

It will be interesting to how WIPO devises the legal instrument. Globally, various traditional knowledge initiatives include sui generis policies, like India’s traditional knowledge database, benefit-sharing programs, or certification marks. WIPO is planning to do further research into such endeavours’ success.

Some questions arise. Would success in one jurisdiction indicate global success? Similarly, is an international traditional knowledge database feasible?  How would non-state actors react?

While many questions remain,there is one certainty.  The international community is taking greater steps to protect traditional knowledge and that is ideal.


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