Francis Gurry led WIPO as Director General from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2020.

Intellectual Property and Indigenous People: A Major Challenge

June 23, 2015

Protecting indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions across borders is among the most-challenging topics in the intellectual property field, participants heard at a recent seminar at WIPO.

In a video address Video, Mr. Gurry hailed the “very good program,” which he said would address “important questions.”

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry welcomed scores of participants to the “Seminar on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Regional and International Dimensions.”


William Fisher of Harvard University
Law School. (Photo: WIPO/Berrod)

In opening the proceedings, William Fisher of Harvard University Law School said: “The topic with which we will be grappling today is very difficult, perhaps the most-difficult issue in the law of intellectual property.”

“The question is to the extent, if any, to which unauthorized uses of traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, or genetic resources should be restricted by governments more than they currently are,” he said at the June 23-25, 2015 conference held at WIPO headquarters in Geneva. “Many serious legitimate concerns lie on both sides.”

Those advocating stricter restrictions say that indigenous groups are entitled to compensation for their knowledge, or at least attribution when the knowledge is used by others, according to Mr. Fisher. Incentives are needed for indigenous groups to preserve and disseminate knowledge, to prevent its disappearance, while protections may help offset long-term economic exploitation of indigenous groups, he summarized proponents as saying.

“On the other side of the ledger there are equally serious arguments against tightening the restrictions on uses of traditional knowledge,” said Mr. Fisher.

Parties against tighter restrictions on usage of traditional knowledge contend that indigenous groups and their cultures and practices are dynamic and that restrictions would impair evolution. Opponents also say “everyone benefits from at least some uses of traditional knowledge and genetic resources in particular, especially when those things are harnessed to the solution of modern problems, especially modern medical problems,” Mr. Fisher said.

“So, very strong, competing arguments on both sides of the issue,” he said.

Mr. Fisher moderated a roundtable on cross-border protection as part of a WIPO Seminar addressing several critical issues related to traditional knowledge, genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions.

The well-attended seminar provides a space for informal discussion of substantive topics and the sharing of actual experiences, complementing WIPO's normative work on these issues.