Traditional Knowledge: Traditional knowledge (TK) is knowledge, know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity. While there is not yet an accepted definition of TK at the international level, it can be said that:
- TK in a general sense embraces the content of knowledge itself as well as traditional cultural expressions, including distinctive signs and symbols associated with TK.
- TK in the narrow sense refers to knowledge as such, in particular the knowledge resulting from intellectual activity in a traditional context, and includes know-how, practices, skills, and innovations.
Traditional knowledge can be found in a wide variety of contexts, including: agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal knowledge as well as biodiversity-related knowledge.
Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property
Innovations based on TK may benefit from patent, trademark, and geographical indication protection, or be protected as a trade secret or confidential information. However, traditional knowledge as such - knowledge that has ancient roots and is often oral - is not protected by conventional intellectual property systems.
While the policy issues concerning TK are broad and diverse, the IP issues break down into two key themes:
Defensive protection refers to a set of strategies to ensure that third parties do not gain illegitimate or unfounded IP rights over TK. These measures include the amendment of WIPO-administered patent systems (the International Patent Classification system and the Patent Cooperation Treaty Minimum Documentation). Some countries and communities are also developing TK databases that may be used as evidence of prior art to defeat a claim to a patent on such TK. WIPO has developed a toolkit to provide practical assistance to TK holders on documenting TK.
Two aspects of positive protection of TK by IP rights are being explored:
- Preventing unauthorized use, and
- Active exploitation of TK by the originating community itself.
Negotiations on an international legal instrument are taking place within the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore. In some countries, sui generis legislation has been developed specifically to address the positive protection of TK. In addition, providers and users may also enter into contractual agreements and/or use existing IP systems of protection.
Genetic resources (GRs) refer to genetic material of actual or potential value. Genetic material is any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity. Examples include material of plant, animal, or microbial origin, such as medicinal plants, agricultural crops and animal breeds.
Genetic Resources and Intellectual Property
GRs as encountered in nature are not creations of the human mind and thus they cannot be directly protected as intellectual property (IP). However, there are IP issues associated with GRs.
Inventions or plant varieties based on or developed using GRs (associated with traditional knowledge or not) may be patentable or protected by plant breeders’ rights.
In considering IP issues associated with GRs, WIPO’s work complements the frameworks for access and benefit-sharing provided by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Nagoya Protocol, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).