Thwarting the biopirates

India prevented people patenting their foods, traditional medicines, and yoga poses by recording them all in an online database: 34 million pages’ worth.

cookbookman17 / CC BY

Pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies can get impressive returns by commercialising traditional knowledge. Take guarana from Brazil, for example, or artemisinin from China. The term for this is bioprospecting: finding useful organic compounds in nature and finding a way to make a product out of them. Some people, though, see this as exploitative, because it takes its cues from traditional (often oral, usually unpatented) knowledge without properly compensating the people to whom that knowledge belongs. In other words, it’s biopiracy.

An example is in order. In 1994, an American company called RiceTec filed a patent for several varieties of Basmati rice; the patent was granted in 1997. Basmati rice, of course, has been grown in Indian and Pakistan for at least 250 years, so a patent on “rice grains having characteristics similar or superior to those of good quality basmati rice” seems a little dodgy. The Indian government, quite rightly, challenged the patent in 2000, and two years later it was nullified.

This patent battle, and others like it, raised an interesting problem. Patent offices cannot make the connections to traditional knowledge because so much of it is either untranslated or just not easily accessible. As a result, it’s much more likely to be overlooked when examining patents. The Indian government attempted to solve this problem in a very pragmatic way: collect, translate, and make available every written account of traditional knowledge that they could find.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library is a repository of hundreds of books of traditional Indian medicine, compiled, scanned, and translated. In all, it runs to 34 million pages. Now, every time someone tries to patent some organic compound from the Indian subcontinent, patent examiners can look it up in the library and see whether it is being co-opted.

One funny end note: apparently people have been trying to patent yoga techniques, so the library includes 1500 yoga poses too, just in case.

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