Did you know that these traditional knowledge systems you use are patented?


How many times have you washed down a common cold with a glass of warm ‘haldi doodh’ or turmeric milk? It is a remedy passed down generations and is regularly used in almost every household.

Did you know that the medicinal properties of turmeric are recognised as the traditional knowledge of India? Did you also know that in the early 90s India fought and won against two US-based scientists who had been awarded a patent for discovering the wound-healing properties of turmeric? The patent was revoked because the medicinal properties of turmeric are traditional knowledge of India that has been passed down over several generations and forms the country’s cultural identity.

What is traditional knowledge?

Any knowledge, including philosophies, medicines, practices, observations, art, literature or expertise, that was developed by native or indigenous communities and handed down generations is known as traditional knowledge. It is a living bank of knowledge that is still used and modified. This knowledge bank is passed on orally or in text. It is also known as indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge examples include Yoga which dates back to ancient India and folk songs passed on through generations.

astronomer-writingTraditional knowledge examples

India is a country of rich culture and heritage. Being one of the oldest civilisations, the country boasts of a wealth of traditional knowledge examples. While these traditional knowledge systems are not patented, many innovations derived from these systems have been patented.

Here are a few indigenous knowledge examples that you may be using everyday:

  1. Tea: If you are a tea enthusiast, you probably do not need any more reasons to drink your tea. You may also be aware of the health benefits of tea. Many a patent have been awarded to innovations to treat skin illnesses using tea, tea composition and tea bags. Apart from this, hundreds of patents have been granted to the use and processing of tea.
  2. Asafoetida: Commonly known as hing, asafoetida is added to food preparations for some flavour and zing. You may have also heard your grandmother say that it aids digestion. Processing of asafoetida and its use as an anti-fungal treatment are some of the patents granted to the mighty spice.
  3. Yoga: The exact origin of this physical and mental exercise routine is unknown. It’s postures have evolved over centuries. While none of the postures have been patented, ergonomic yoga mats can be and have been patented, as well as a stand that helps you perform vertically inverted yoga.

Protection of traditional knowledge

Traditional knowledge systems are created by our ancestors. They define our culture and are deeply rooted in our lives. In many communities, they are still a means of livelihood.

However, they are available freely in public domain. These knowledge systems are then exploited by individuals or conglomerates to make money, endangering the livelihoods of indigenous communities and leaving a dent in our cultural heritage.

Another example of the exploitation of indigenous knowledge systems is that of India’s traditional medicine system. Plant-based treatment methods such as Ayurveda and Unani are indigenous to India. However, they are now being used for medicinal purposes across the world. This endangers the profession of traditional Unani and Ayurveda practitioners.

Yet another example of traditional knowledge is the knowledge of Indian spices and herbs. Different combinations of herbs and spices are used throughout the country to treat skin, abdominal and hormonal ailments. None of these herbs or combination of herbs are patented. Therefore, many large cosmetic companies have monetised on the popularity of these traditional treatments and floated expensive products in the market.

How to protect traditional knowledge

There is a global demand for protecting traditional knowledge from exploitation and misuse. However, there aren’t enough tools to do so around the world.

For instance, in India, traditional patent laws do not protect traditional knowledge directly. The patent laws in our country principally grant intellectual property rights or patents to ‘novel’ techniques and methods. Since, traditional knowledge systems have existed for years, they are considered ‘prior art’ and do not qualify for patents.

There are, however, methods to protect the interests of indigenous communities through various sections of laws that allow for benefit sharing. Recently, the Indian government has  allowed patent applications for inventions that were derived from traditional knowledge.

Final note: India has been a pioneer is conserving traditional knowledge and helping other countries monitors patent applications for duplication. One of the greatest contributions to this process is the traditional knowledge digital library that records traditional medicinal knowledge such as Ayurveda and unani from ancient Indian texts. With a wealth of traditional knowledge systems at its disposal, protecting these traditional knowledge examples is an uphill task.


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