The World Intellectual Property Organisation (hereinafter referred to as WIPO) defines “traditional knowledge” as ‘a living body of knowledge passed on from generation to generation within a community. It often forms part of a people’s cultural and spiritual identity.’ For Indians, things such as yoga or healing properties of turmeric or tulsi etcetera will be a part of our traditional knowledge. One of its characteristics is that this knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. It may or may not be written somewhere.
Traditional Knowledge Digital Library or TKDL for short is an initiative by the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (hereinafter referred to as CSIR).
It was introduced in the year 2001 to prevent the grant of international patents for traditional Indian knowledge. The commission of this library was instigated when the Government of India had to spend a sizeable amount of the taxpayer’s money to get the patent granted to the University of Mississippi by the USPTO revoked.
One of the first instances where there was a lot of hue and cry about the violation of traditional knowledge was when the patent (no.5, 401,504) to Turmeric was granted to the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, as mentioned above. The CSIR took an active part in ensuring that the patent is revoked. To support their claims, they highlighted ancient Sanskrit text and a paper which was published in the journal of the Indian Medical Association to support their claim. The USPTO in 1997 eventually revoked the patent.
Another case where the Indian authorities had to get involved was when the EPO(European Patent Office) had granted a patent (EPO patent No.436257) of the healing properties of Neem to an American organisation named, W.R. Grace Company along with the United States Department of Agriculture. It was only after a legal case was filed that the EPO revoked the patent. It was on the grounds that the information provided in the patent application was already public knowledge therefore; it does not fulfill the qualifications.
It was these instances and many others which made the Indian Government realise that if left unprotected, the trove of traditional knowledge which India possesses will become vulnerable to exploitation by foreign nationals.
The main hindrance in protecting traditional knowledge lies in the fact that there is no universally accepted definition of “traditional knowledge”. Despite this, the Government of India has done a laudable job in documenting the available knowledge. The library took the knowledge available, translated it into the six global languages and made it public domain. The library boasts a record of approximately 22 lakh medical formulations. It is a database of more than thirty-four million pages which has helped prevent and revoke numerous patents which were granted by the International Patent Offices.
Why is it Important?
For centuries now, people have profited by exploiting the knowledge of the indigenous tribes and local communities. There were no protections granted to their community knowledge because of which they were left unprotected.
It is essential for developing countries like India to protect the unique knowledge which they possess because it will enable them to make their developmental process more sustainable. It will help them achieve their ideal levels of socio-cultural development. The introduction and formulation of the TKDL has helped protect our knowledge from bio-piracy and has brought discussions about the usage of traditional knowledge into the mainstream.
It has made it easier for international patent offices to avoid granting patents to those trying to infringe the rights of the indigenous groups. At present, India has an agreement with twelve patent offices across the Globe. Having access to the library makes the search for prior art by the patent office easier.
Unlike the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which aims to protect the biological diversity of a country and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which aims at protecting the commercial rights of inventors, TKDL aims at preserving and protecting community rights. By translating and publishing the knowledge present in local languages in the form of six global languages, the TKDL, apart from protecting rights, helps in bridging the communication and knowledge gap which exists in the world.
At present, only the international patent offices have a right to access the information given under TKDL. Independent researchers aren’t allowed access to the library. This creates a knowledge gap and places independent researchers at a disadvantage which acts as a hindrance in the development of technology.
The International Patent Office who are accessing the information given in the TKDL, have to sign a non-disclosure agreement because of which, the communities or the indigenous groups from whom the knowledge was sourced are not being financially remunerated. If the information were open to individual researchers at the cost of a fee, then the amount could have been used for the development and upliftment of the aforementioned groups.
At the end of the day, TKDL achieved the thing it set out to achieve. The Ministry of AYUSH, CSIR and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare wanted to create a database using which patent office all over the world could have easy access to India’s traditional knowledge and to prevent its unethical commercial exploitation. In this regard, it has been successful. It has also helped start a conversation about protecting the rights of indigenous groups over their knowledge.
After almost twenty years of its initiation, it is important to ask ourselves if what the library is offering is enough. Sure, it has been successful in protecting and preserving the knowledge, but can it not do more? Can the library, which is already unique, be made into the epitome for all future traditional knowledge databases and initiatives to protect the rights of indigenous groups simply by identifying their contribution to the world at large and giving back in the way of some remuneration?
- About TKDL, Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (10-08-2020), http://www.tkdl.res.in/tkdl/langdefault/common/Abouttkdl.asp?GL=Eng.
- About the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, World Intellectual Property Organisation (10-08-2020), https://www.wipo.int/meetings/en/2011/wipo_tkdl_del_11/about_tkdl.html.
- Traditional Knowledge, World Intellectual Property Organisation (10-08-2020), https://www.wipo.int/tk/en/.
- Protecting India’s Traditional Knowledge, World Intellectual Property Organisation (10-08-2020), https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2011/03/article_0002.html.
- Mangala Hirwade, Anil Hirwade, Traditional Knowledge Protection: an Indian Perspective, 32. Journal of Library and Information Technology 240, 246 (2012).
- Major Milestones, Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (12-08-2020), http://www.tkdl.res.in/tkdl/langdefault/common/Home.asp?GL=Eng.
- Abha Nadkarni, Shardha Rajam, Capitalising the benefits of Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in favour of Indeginous Communities, 9 NUJS L.Rev. 183 (2016).
The author is Vaishnavi Dandotikar, IIIrd year, ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad.