India: Traditional Knowledge And Patents

Last Updated: 30 May 2019
Article by Sonal Sodhani


From time immemorial, from music and dance to science and technology, ideas and inventions have been transferred from one generation to the other within various communities. Today's practice can be said to be a collective knowledge of all the inventions and innovations that occurred over a period of time and then transferred as traditional knowledge. Having being transferred with the communities over generations, these ideas and inventions have developed a cultural attachment within the community, thereby encouraging ownership of the community for the particular set of knowledge. Recent trend shows that many of these practices and ideas have now become the basis of new inventions. Contrary to the nature of traditional knowledge that promotes community interest, patent law encourages private monopoly and profit. However, in the commercial world prevailing today, such amalgam of traditional knowledge and patent laws have gained recognition.

Traditional Knowledge

"When an elder dies, a library burns" – AmadouHampate Ba1

Traditional Knowledge (TK) can be said to be the skills, ideas and knowledge that is passed within any community, generation after generation, causing to form spiritual and cultural identity.2 Further, it also include all the innovations and advancements made on account of the needs of the society, TK can be referred to as 'a living body of knowledge that is being transferred over the generations.' Having ancient roots and developed from experiences over thousands of years, Traditional Knowledge is generally communicated and transferred orally and is also informal. Such knowledge, thus, have no protection under the conventional system of intellectual property protection.

An ideal example of TK would be Neem, which is considered to have a lot of use and applications, including pest repellent, cosmetics, medicines, etc. and the same has been mentioned in Indian texts from 2000 years ago.

TK and Patent applicability

From the view of patent laws, TK can be said to be an information, written or unwritten, passed on by various communities and which is already in existence. A documented TK attains the feature and character of prior art and because it is available in public domain, there cannot be any limitation and prevention of commercial use of such knowledge. Adding to this, Section 3 (p) of the Patents Act, clearly mentions that traditional knowledge shall not be considered as an invention or an innovative idea.

To avoid/ prevent patent grants to TK in India, an initiative has been taken to document and publish all the TK by an e-library and such library is called as Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). TKDL provides with details of scientific and traditional knowledge arranged in a manner according to the classification of international patents.

For undocumented TK which are held by various communities, patent laws come into picture as there are many organizations trying to get ownership over such TK in order to exploit the same for commercial gains. In case of undocumented TK, in the eyes of the law, it is relevantly easy to prove it to be a novel invention. With the intent to provide a solution to this problem, the Indian Patent Office issued a circular stating that the patents which are pending within the TK domain will be made available online and any objection with regard to the same can be made at the Patent Office.3

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library and Bio-piracy

TKDL was a major and important step taken by the Indian government as an effort taken to revoke and retract patent on turmeric for its wound healing characteristics by USPTO and patent on neem for its anti-fungal properties granted to EPO. It is worth mentioning here, that traditional knowledge in medicines and Ayurveda exists in various vernacular languages of India like Sanskrit, Urdu, Tamil, etc. and so it is difficult for the patent examiners of international patent offices to access and comprehend. In the year 2005, it was noted that approximately 2000 patents were granted concerning the Indian medicines, annually, across the globe. Concerned with the above statistics, ancient texts on Indian medicines, including Ayurveda, Siddha, Urani and Yoga, have been published, in TKDL, with 5 different foreign languages, namely, English. French, Spanish, Japanese and German. The entire process was done with the help of various IT tools and an exclusive system of classification, called as Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC) Bio-piracy and Misappropriation of TK.

Bio-piracy can be said to be use of intellectual property protections and IP systems to make the exclusive use of those biological resources, biological products and patents which have been in existence and in use in the non-industrialised sector over centuries, legal. Bio-piracy can also be seen as the act of misappropriating traditional knowledge with a malice intention to gain profits by getting patent protection over the knowledge. There are a various factors that make traditional knowledge vulnerable to bio-piracy, such as devolution, lack of appropriate laws, tussle between the systems and encroachment. Use of the traditional knowledge can be of a great aid as it can be used to enhance and develop best possible product or processes for people without much investment in R&D and clinical trials. Overall TK can be a great time saver.

TK and Bio-piracy cases

1. Neem Patent

The patent for Neem was first filed by W.R. Grace and the Department of Agriculture, USA in European Patent Office.4 The patent was granted for the anti-fungal property of neem. In the particular case, a method involving a contact between a fungus and neem oil formulation for the purpose of controlling fungal growth in plants was patented. An opposition was filed against the said grant by India. The opponent proved that the neem plant contains a number of compounds and is used as astringent and antiseptic in many cases. From diabetes to skin diseases, all parts of the plants have been used to cure various types of diseases. Neem twigs have been used as toothbrush from centuries ago. Hydrophobic extracts of the neem seeds were not just known but used to cure skin diseases and fungal infections in plants. The same has been written in the Indian Ayurvedic texts.

EPO found the invention not to be novel or innovative and similar to prior art and thus, revoked the patent which was granted.

2. Turmeric Patent

An Indian herb of tropical region, turmeric, is used in variety of ways like food, medicines, etc. Turmeric has many benefits like it acts as blood purifier, treats cold and skin diseases and is also used as an essential food ingredient in Indian kitchen. Patent on turmeric for its wound healing properties was granted to University of Mississippi Medical Centre, by United States in the year 1995.5 Objection was raised by India on grant of patent on turmeric. Evidences were provided with references stating turmeric was used for healing wound since centuries, in various languages, namely Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu.

Thus, the patent was revoked by USPTO as the claim in the patent was proved to be obvious and known.

A mid-way between TK and Patents

While TK promotes community interests, patent supports individual monopoly. With concurrence of both these worlds in cases of "TK-derived inventions", there is a necessity to get a balance between the two.

In India, this balance is struck by the Biodiversity Act, 2002. Section 2 (a) of the Act read with Sec. 6 (2), brings the concept of 'benefit sharing' with respect to the product or process derived or made with the help of knowledge and for commercial purpose which is conserved with the 'benefit claimers.' Benefit claimers are referred to the ones are the holders of knowledge of the use and benefits of such biological resources and innovation in relation to the use and application.

Those who hold the traditional knowledge is referred as 'benefit holder'. National Biodiversity Authority has been taking initiative to protect the benefits of the benefit holders by way of agreements in relation to benefit-sharing that is made between the TK holder and the inventor who wants to exploit TK-deprived inventions in commercial market. Such agreements acts as a win-win for both the parties – TK holder and his rights are appreciated and the patent holder gains monopoly in the commercial market.

This mid-way was followed in the case of Jeevani drugs, where a patent was granted to the Tropical Botanical Garden Research Institute on energy enhancing property of a fruit from the plant of Jeevani. Fruits of Jeevani was used by the Kani Tribe of Kerela at Western Ghats to reduce fatigue. In this particular case, a revenue of 50% was shared with the TK holder by the patent holder.6


Traditional Knowledge, definitely, is a cultural heritage and backbone for any country but at the same time is a valuable resource with a lot of potential that needs to be exploited to bring economic growth and development in a country. It is also obvious that there is a need to maintain a balance between the profits and benefits of such knowledge in the commercial market and the protection of the rights of the native communities, so that the socio-economic harmony of a nation is left undisturbed.

Having enough provisions to protect TK, it has become a gold mine in this regard that needs to be exploited and used. Limited investment and ever growing needs of the people, have resulted in showing great potentials in TK and TK-derived inventions. It is a prime time, with many provisions for protection, to get into the world of TK and harness the same for innovations and creations. However, the rights of the local people and the cultural heritage of the country should not be prejudiced for commercial benefits.






[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid (n 3).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions