WIPO Member States Agree to Fast-Track Work on Traditional Knowledge

Geneva, September 29, 2003
Press Releases PR/2003/362

Member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) decided today to push forward with work relating to the intellectual property aspects of traditional knowledge, folklore and genetic resources. The General Assembly, meeting from September 22 to October 1, 2003, decided on an extended mandate for the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC). The mandate requires the IGC to accelerate its work, and to focus in particular on the international dimension of intellectual property (IP) and genetic resources, traditional knowledge (TK) and folklore. The new mandate excludes no outcome for the IGC's work, including the possible development of an international instrument or instruments in this field.

The IGC first met in April 2001 with a mandate to discuss a range of pressing issues in the field of intellectual property (IP). Since then, the IGC has concentrated on how IP systems can work more effectively to protect TK and traditional cultural expressions (TCEs - also termed 'expressions of folklore'), and to deal with IP aspects of genetic resources. It has tackled these issues at several, interlocking levels:

  • debating broad policy and legal questions, including how IP rights can operate to promote the interests of holders and custodians of TK and TCEs, ranging over conventional IP rights, extension and adaptation of IP rights, and specific or sui generis legal systems that have been created in a number of countries;
  • sharing practical experience by surveying, documenting and analysing TK and TCE protection in many countries and several regions, to give practical input into the policy debate, and
  • developing practical tools and mechanisms to support TK holders, custodians of TCEs, and indigenous and local communities in identifying and promoting their interests in relation to the IP system.

Many comments at the current General Assembly highlighted that the IGC's work to date has already led to a much greater understanding of the concepts and issues it has addressed, and has clarified how to deal with concerns about inadequate recognition and protection of TK and TCEs. The discussions highlighted the expectation of a number of countries that specific steps should be taken to strengthen protection, including the development of specific new international instruments; others pointed out that the significance of the issues, and their complexity, meant that further analysis and clarification was needed before crystallizing formal outcomes; there is also a view that more work needs to be done to explore the full potential of existing IP rights and systems to protect TK and TCEs. The program and budget approved by the current session of the General Assembly included a range of complementary activities, including continuing capacity-building, legislative assistance and cooperation with a range of national, regional and international initiatives.

The WIPO Assembly also approved the transmission of a technical study (document WO/GA/30/7) prepared by WIPO to the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The study concerns patent disclosure requirements that are relevant to genetic resources and TK that are used in patented inventions. The study is set to be considered by various working groups under the CBD, as well as the Conference of Parties of the CBD when it next meets early next year.

The IGC has fostered exchange of practical understanding of the approaches available for legal protection of traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. A composite study on TK protection (document WIPO/GRTKF/IC/5/8 available in Adobe PDF and MS-Word formats) prepared for the IGC has reviewed definitions of TK, policy issues in protecting TK as intellectual property, and options for specific, or sui generis, protection of TK. A parallel analysis of the protection of TCEs (or expressions of folklore) was debated at length by the IGC at its last session (document WIPO/GRTKF/IC/5/3, available in Adobe PDF and MS-Word). Along with an extensive series of surveys, case studies and analysis of legislation, these documents provide a strong basis for the new phase of WIPO's work in this area, and ensure that it is based on a rich understanding of existing approaches and the costs and benefits of different policy options.

The IGC has also considered defensive approaches to ensuring that TK and genetic resource material are not the subject of illegitimate patent claims. This has led to moves to modify core elements of the patent system, such as the International Patent Classification and the information basis of international search and examination under the Patent Cooperation Treaty.


The IGC's mandate is to discuss IP issues relating to access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing, TK, and innovations; and traditional creativity and cultural expressions (expressions of folklore). A detailed overview of the work of the IGC is provided in document WIPO/GRTKF/IC/5/12 ( available in Adobe PDF and MS-Word formats). In the IGC's work, the terms 'traditional cultural expressions' and 'expressions of folklore' are used synonymously.

The IGC, established by the WIPO General Assembly in October 2000, is open to all member states of WIPO. Other United Nations member states, intergovernmental organizations and accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may participate as observers. Some 175 accredited NGOs can take part in the IGC, including 83 NGOs especially accredited by the IGC, many of which represent the specific interests of indigenous communities and TK holders. At the IGC's request, the secretariat is developing specific ways of further enhancing the participation of local and indigenous communities in the IGC's work.

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