World Intellectual Property Organization

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.

(Photo: iStockphoto.com/pixelfusion3d).

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

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.

Positive protection

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.

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