World Intellectual Property Organization

Technology Based on Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources: Sharing the Benefits

April 2007

The Convention on Biological Biodiversity was concluded at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Photos.com)
The Convention on Biological Biodiversity was concluded at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Photos.com)

Technological developments have increased our ability to derive industrial and commercial benefits from traditional knowledge (TK) and genetic resources. As seen in the previous article on Brazil, there are many examples of TK and genetic resources providing essential inputs to the development of valuable new products including medicines, crops and industrial enzymes.

But this same trend has sharpened concerns about how to ensure (a) that knowledge and genetic resources are used with the prior informed consent of the traditional and local communities concerned, and (b) that benefits of such use are shared equitably, especially with the custodians of the resources. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for instance, which was concluded at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, establishes the principles that access to genetic resources should be subject to prior informed consent and the benefits of their use should be shared equitably.

It is often remarked that the bulk of the world’s traditional knowledge and biodiversity lies in the developing world, whereas the capacity to extract commercial benefit from these still resides largely in the developed world. Patent statistics show a predominance of developed country activity in this field, and although several developing countries are now showing a rapid increase in relevant patent activity, they are starting from a very low base. The International Patent Classification was recently amended to introduce new classes to help identify and monitor patents on medicines derived from natural products, which often make use of TK and genetic resources.

Different approaches

The debate over access and benefit sharing has led a number of countries to amend their laws to require disclosure of any TK and genetic resources used in a patented invention. This extends in some cases to requiring evidence of prior informed consent and equitable benefit sharing. Such requirements make a direct link between the context in which genetic resources and TK are accessed and used, and the filing of patents on inventions based on such inputs. Several such proposals have also been made at the international level, including a proposal within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to amend the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) to make such disclosure requirements mandatory in national laws. Other countries have taken the view that different means, such as access contracts, are preferable to amending patent law and international treaties in this way.

Several WIPO forums have considered this question, and WIPO has developed two detailed studies on this question at the invitation of the CBD. An extensive debate continues in several international fora, including the WTO, the CBD and WIPO.

Visit the WIPO website for more information.

By Antony Taubman, WIPO Global IP Issues Division.

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