HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Guest Blogger J. Janewa OseiTutu: Traditional Medicinal Knowledge & Intellectual Property Rights

Jan OseiTutu The World Health Organization (“WHO”) acknowledges traditional medicine and the role it plays in many societies. According to WHO, a majority of the population in some Asian and Africa countries rely on traditional medicine for their health care. In many industrialized countries, a majority of the population has used some form of traditional medicine in addition, or as an alternative, to traditional western medicine. Thus, one of the objectives of the WHO traditional medicine strategy is to help Member States facilitate the integration of traditional medicine into their national health systems. While WHO is focused primarily[1] on the health-related aspects of traditional medicinal knowledge, the World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”), thorough its Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore (WIPO IGC), is working towards creating some form of international legal protection for this kind of knowledge. In 2009, the WIPO IGC was mandated to submit a text that will ensure effective protection of traditional knowledge, genetic resources, and traditional cultural expressions to the WIPO General Assembly when it meets this fall. 

Legal protection for traditional medicinal knowledge has become a somewhat controversial issue in global discussions about intangible property rights. Traditional medicinal knowledge is typically knowledge that is held by certain communities and that has been passed down from one generation to another. It is often based on genetic resources (usually from plants) that are located in a specific community, and whose valuable properties are known to those within the community. This medicinal knowledge may be highly valued locally, nationally, or even globally. Hence, the need to respect traditional knowledge and genetic resources has been addressed in international instruments like the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The intellectual property aspect arises when university researchers, multinational corporations, or others external to the traditional knowledge holding community seek to rely on the knowledge of these “local” or “indigenous” peoples to develop a new product, and subsequently obtain intellectual property protection. This has resulted in allegations of “biopiracy” and “misappropriation” of genetic resources. A well-known example of alleged biopiracy is that of the hoodia cactus plant. Several generations of the San people of southern Africa used this plant to stave off hunger. An extract from the plant was patented for its hunger-fighting properties, and licensed to the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer. Yet, the traditional knowledge held by the San people of southern Africa about the use of the hoodia cactus as an appetite suppressant is not protectable under the current intellectual property system.

The question is whether, given the value of this medicinal knowledge, it should be protected by some kind of intangible property right. Pharmaceutical companies are able to obtain patent protection and a corresponding period of market exclusivity for the drugs they develop. Should traditional medicinal knowledge also be entitled to some form of protection, even if it is not novel in the patent law sense? It may not be novel, but traditional medicinal knowledge has been described as innovative because it is constantly evolving. Another common argument against any legal protection for such knowledge is that it is in the public domain, and part of the “common heritage of mankind.” However, this argument been criticized on many levels. For example, some commentators have characterized traditional knowledge as “developing country intellectual property” and classic intellectual property as “western” and therefore non-inclusive.

There are many complex legal and policy issues that arise in the discussions about legal protection for traditional knowledge. For instance, given the intergenerational nature of the knowledge, should the protection be perpetual? How does one define and identify the community that has rights to the traditional knowledge or genetic resources?  Is this a North-South issue, and will a legal right for traditional medicinal knowledge ultimately benefit developing countries and indigenous peoples? How will it impact access to traditional medicine? For a more comprehensive discussion of these issues, please see my 2011 article, A Sui Generis Regime for Traditional Knowledge: the Cultural Divide in Intellectual Property Law.

- J. Janewa OseiTutu

[1] The Beijing Declaration, adopted by the WHO Congress 8 November 2008, refers to a global plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property.

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