E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Patent your heritage

(Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- NY Times: Globalization has made it easier for companies in wealthy countries to take advantage of poor countries by filing patents for crops, medicines and chemicals that traditional cultures have been cultivating and using for centuries. This year, the poor countries have figured out a way to fight back: they are creating digital libraries for their ancient cultural knowledge.

India, probably the largest victim, is cataloging its traditional knowledge on a protected Web site and on DVD's it will send to patent examiners worldwide. The next time someone proposes patenting the use of a traditional Indian herb or spice for a particular medicinal purpose, examiners will be able to see if Indian Ayurvedic medicine described the process centuries ago.

In June, the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) unveiled a Web site with parts of the Indian digital library, as well as a database of patents based on traditional medicine granted in Beijing to Chinese inventors. WIPO is urging other countries to catalog their cultural and biological patrimony, and is asking patent examiners to search these databases when considering relevant applications.

India began the project after it had to spend almost four years fighting a basmati rice patent granted in America to a company called RiceTec, and two years to get another American patent, on the healing properties of turmeric, revoked. ''There are 2,000 or 3,000 cases of misappropriation of our traditional knowledge in Washington alone,'' says V. K. Gupta, the driving force behind India's digital database. ''It would cost us a billion dollars to invalidate these wrong patents in court. We needed defensive protection.''

The United States patent office, not surprisingly, sees its mission as encouraging innovation through the generous granting of patents, and those who disagree can slug it out before a judge. Woefully overstretched examiners have only a few hours to see whether an idea is new, and they cannot reject a patent application on common sense alone. ''Patent offices have terrible problems knowing who's doing what where, especially outside their home countries,'' says Greg Aharonian, a San Francisco patent consultant. And traditional knowledge -- which often exists only orally -- is especially hard to pin down.

Ayurvedic medicine is written -- in verse. The Indian database translates the verses from Sanskrit to modern languages, updating the names of plants and diseases and grouping them into standard patent classifications. Digital libraries for other Indian traditional medicines are in the works.