India: Ambit Of Global Intellectual Rights Over Traditional Knowledge

Last Updated: 1 March 2016
Article by Monika Shailesh

Most Read Contributor in India, September 2016

Just like a cat is believed to have nine lives, the discussion of intellectual property rights over the local or traditional knowledge refuses to die. The moment it is believed to have ended it again resurrects. This editorial observes the deliberation over the elimination of indigenous or local knowledge forms from the global intellectual property system, and the Indian way to mitigation. Using the lens of cultural cosmopolitanism, the article highlights important trends in the contentions of developing countries engagement with intellectual property and other collateral knowledge protection systems. An amalgamation of aspects, such as economic globalization, advancement in genetic research for food, medicines, and agriculture, as well as the swelling occurrence of bio piracy1 has made native and local group's incongruity concerning intellectual property an unkind ill affordable option.2 These phenomenons indicates a one way transfer of native knowledge to the industrialized and developed western world leaving no or very little benefit to the place of originations. As a result the land of origination of this historical resource of traditional knowledge accumulated over a long period of time has resorted to the various mitigation plans.

Even though traditional knowledge is believed to be the source of medical relief for about eighty percent of the global population, traditional medicine and its associated knowledge are alleged as a form of local knowledge, in contrast to Western biomedicine. A number of aspects explain for the apparent local status of traditional medicine, and the cosmopolitan status of its Western counterpart. The most precarious factor is the colonial hierarchy of culture and power in which non-Western peoples and their knowledge systems are treated with disparagement and derogation.3


The Indian subcontinent has a gorgeous inheritance in traditional medicinal knowledge. This heritage originates from multiple medicinal traditions, including Ayurveda, homeopathy, naturopathy, Siddha, Unanani, and Yoga.4 Even though the majority of this information has been passed down by verbal institution, noteworthy parts of it are described in diverse but usually inaccessible classical literature in different traditional or local dialects such as Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Tamil, and others. It has become imperative to document this existing knowledge, available in public domain, on many traditional forms of medicine in order to protect the sovereignty of this traditional knowledge and to protect it from being misused in the form of intellectual property rights on prior art innovations. It has been observed that in modern times, various national as well as international pharmaceutical organizations and re-search institutions have been trying to exploit India's medicinal heritage through the intellectual property right system. Notable examples include the turmeric, basmati, and neem patents, the applications for which were the subject of controversy at the United States patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the European patent Office (EPO), and elsewhere.5 This experience became a cause of concern for India to address the nagging issue of the exploitation of its traditional medicinal heritage and the evil of biopiracy. India fought successfully for the revocation of turmeric and basmati patents granted by United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and neem patent granted by European Patent Office (EPO). As a sequel to this, in 1999, the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy-(AYUSH), erstwhile Department of Indian System of Medicine and Homoeopathy (ISM&H) constituted an inter-disciplinary Task Force, for creating an approach paper on establishing a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL).The project TKDL was initiated in the year 20016. India's expertise is demonstrative of a universal trend in many developing countries with rich genetic resources and a traditional knowledge heritage.

According to Appu Rathinavelu, Executive Director, Rumbaugh Goodwin Institute for Cancer Research, Nova Southeastern University, U.S an awareness of the medicinal value of Indian plants goes up globally, more should be done by the Government to protect the nation's biodiversity7. Bakrudeen Ali Ahmed, visiting faculty, Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Malaya, Malaysia, who has specialized in researching the application of plant propagation, bio-active compound production via plant tissue culture methods and development of pharmaceutical products and pharmacological studies felt that it was important to explore and record the plant wealth of India. With a number claims of copyright over the various yoga asana and slokas have revealed the increase in anxiety of using intellectual property rights over the traditional knowledge. A rise in patent application related to yoga accessories like mats, devices and apparatus have been seen in many countries like RUSSIA, TAIWAN, CANADA, U.S.A, CHINA etc. and is clearly an indication towards the growing popularity of Indian traditional health practices. Discovery of Anti-Biotic was a major milestone in the medical world. However, since the failure of anti-biotics and rising cases of anti-biotic resistant disease causing agents the superbugs have diverted the attention of the researchers towards the age old traditional knowledge of Indian medicine to found out the plants and herbs that can prove to be very useful towards fighting this major issue. It has been estimated that about 2,000 patents relating to Indian medicinal systems were being erroneously granted by patent offices around the world.

India's rejoinder to the lush bio piracy was the formation of a defensive anti-adoption strategy, the TKDL(Traditional Knowledge Digital Library). For a patent to be granted, an applicant must satisfy the patent office that it is no prior art. As the Indian Traditional knowledge exist majorly in languages not understood by international patent offices across the world, there was no database for the patent officers to prove prior art. TKDL is an belligerent effort to create previously out-of-the-way but organized Indian traditional medicinal knowledge available in digital form, so that patent examiners will have them convenient as confirmation of prior art. The TKDL for India's systems of medicine is a massive government-sponsored interdisciplinary and inter departmental project. It deploys the nation's wealth of human resources in medicinal knowledge systems, information technology, science, research, and bureaucracy.8 TKDL is intended to publish on customary knowledge from the prevailing texts related to Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha, in digitalized format in five global languages which are English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish.

In just under two years, in Europe alone, India has succeeded in bringing about the cancellation or withdrawal of 36 applications to patent traditionally known medicinal formulations. The key to this success has been its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a database containing 34 million pages of formatted information on some 2,260,000 medicinal formulations in multiple languages.

Designed as a tool to assist patent examiners of major intellectual property (IP) offices in carrying out prior art searches, the TKDL is a unique repository of India's traditional medical wisdom.9

Current Stat us of TKDL10

Current status of transcription of the traditional medicine formulation in the Traditional knowledge Digital Library is given in the following table:


The hard-edged lines of division and categorization between knowledge systems are no longer strictly sustainable, given the traffic across knowledge and cultural systems around the world. Both globalization and the dare of biopiracy have unlocked new prospects for logical initiatives to fissure and bridge the superficially impassable barrier between local knowledge and the intellectual property system. There is a distinguished progress in opening up local knowledge, especially traditional medicine, to that system. This is illustrated in the Indianpioneered TKDL venture which is basically an anti-appropriation initiative. The TKDL has documented incredible accomplishment in augmenting traditional medicinal knowledge within the international patent process.

With the fact that many of the patents related to the Indian Traditional medicinal system have been granted wrongfully in U.S.A and Europe and several attempts being made to grip the Yoga under intellectual property rights it has become a matter of national concern. As the unidirectional flow of knowledge has brought no or a very little benefit to the people of India TKDL seems to be a great success. It has been estimated that over 0.22 million of patents were protected with the help of TKDL, otherwise opposing each patent around the world with a number of patent office would have been a time consuming costly matter for India.


1 Generally, bio piracy is a slack mention to unidirectional adoption of biocultural knowledge and associated biological wealth of native and local communities by external interests or second comers.

2 See Chidi Oguamanam, Intellectual Property Rights in Plant Genetic Resources: Farmers' Rightsand Food Security of Indigenous and Local Communities, II DRAKE J. AGRIC. L. 273, 278 (2006)

3 See DUNCAN IVISON, POSTCOLONIAL LIBERALISM 35 (2002); Piracy, Biopiracy and Borrowing,supra note 18, at 33-37; Oguamanam,supra note 22.

4 See OGUAMANAM,supra note 14, at 120-21

5 See, e.g., Arewa, TRIPS and Traditional Knowledge, supra note 18, at 170-79


7 ive-species/article7994968.ece

8 The collaborating institutions include the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), Council of Science and Industrial Research, Ministry of Science & Technology and the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare


10 common/abouttkdl.asp?GL=Eng

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