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Traditional Knowledge and IPR(Intellectual Property Rights): Finding the Balance Between Preservation and Innovation

Traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights (IPR) may seem like unlikely bedfellows, like a lion and a gazelle sharing a drink at a watering hole. But as we delve deeper into the relationship between these two seemingly disparate concepts, we begin to see that they are in fact two sides of the same coin, like a matchstick and a flame. In this paper, we’ll explore the challenges and opportunities that arise when trying to balance the preservation of traditional knowledge with the promotion of innovation.


Traditional Knowledge (TK) is the knowledge and expertise passed down from generation to generation in indigenous communities. It includes knowledge about the natural world, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

Intellectual property rights (IPR) are the legal framework that governs the ownership and use of intellectual creations. IPR includes patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.

Benefits of Traditional Knowledge under Intellectual Property Rights:

  1. Preservation and promotion of cultural heritage: IPR protection can help preserve and promote the cultural heritage associated with traditional knowledge. This includes knowledge related to traditional medicine, handicrafts, agriculture, and other fields that have been passed down through generations.
  2. Economic development: TK can contribute to the economic development of communities and regions that hold it. By protecting TK under IPRs, communities can have greater control over its use and commercialization, which can help generate income and employment opportunities.
  3. Preventing misappropriation and exploitation: TK is often at risk of being misappropriated and exploited by unauthorized users. IPR protection can help prevent this by providing legal recourse for communities to prevent unauthorized use and claim compensation for damages.
  4. Encouraging innovation: TK can also serve as a source of inspiration and innovation for new products and processes. IPR protection can encourage innovation by incentivizing research and development related to TK and by providing legal protection for new products and processes derived from TK.
  5. Fostering international cooperation: IPR protection can facilitate international cooperation and exchange of knowledge and resources related to TK. This can promote collaboration between communities, researchers, and industries across borders and support sustainable development.

The Challenge of Protecting Traditional Knowledge under IPR:

IPR was not designed to address the unique challenges posed by traditional knowledge. Protecting traditional knowledge (TK) under intellectual property rights (IPR) is a challenge due to the tension between the two concepts. TK comprises knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities, while IPR grants exclusive rights to creators and inventors. TK is often communal and dynamic, making it hard to fit into IPR. Protecting traditional knowledge under IPR has been controversial as it can lead to exploitation, misappropriation, loss of cultural heritage, the commodification of traditional knowledge and the exclusion of others from using it.

What is GI (Geographical Indications) and its positive impact under IPR

Geographical indications (GIs) are signs used to identify products originating from a specific geographical location, possessing unique qualities or reputation. GIs have a positive impact on intellectual property rights (IPR) by protecting traditional knowledge, cultural heritage, and local community interests. They prevent unauthorized use of product names, protect producers from unfair competition, and preserve product uniqueness.

GIs also promote economic growth and development by creating market differentiation and value-added opportunities for local producers. Emphasizing the product’s quality and distinctiveness increases demand, revenue, and employment opportunities for local communities. GIs are crucial in preserving cultural heritage, promoting sustainable economic development, and safeguarding local producer and consumer interests.

Examples of Geographical Indications protecting Traditional Knowledge under Intellectual Property Rights.

  1. Darjeeling Tea: Darjeeling tea is a type of black tea produced in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. The name “Darjeeling” is protected as a GI under Indian law, which means that only tea grown in that region and meeting certain quality standards can legally be called “Darjeeling Tea.”
  2. Basmati Rice: Basmati rice is a long-grain rice known for its distinctive aroma and flavor, traditionally grown in the Indian subcontinent. The name “Basmati” is protected as a GI under Indian law, which means that only rice grown in certain regions of India and Pakistan, meeting specific criteria related to grain length, aroma, and cooking quality, can legally be called “Basmati Rice.”
  3. Champagne: Champagne is a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. The name “Champagne” is protected by a GI under European Union law, which means that only sparkling wines produced in that region and according to certain production methods can legally be called “Champagne.”

Overall, GIs play an important role in protecting the reputation and quality of products associated with specific regions, while also supporting the economic development of those regions and promoting cultural heritage.

Efforts to put Traditional Knowledge (TK) under Intellectual Property Rights (IPR):

  1. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL): TKDL is a digital database created by the Indian government in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It contains detailed information on traditional medical practices from Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha systems, as well as on traditional herbal medicines, in multiple languages. This information is used to prevent the grant of patents on traditional Indian medicines and practices by providing prior art references to examiners at patent offices around the world.
  2. Patents on traditional knowledge: The Indian government has also taken action to prevent the grant of patents on traditional knowledge. For example, in 1995, the US Patent Office granted a patent on the use of turmeric for wound healing, which was challenged by the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research

(CSIR) and later revoked. Similarly, in 2001, a patent on a traditional anti-fungal medicine derived from neem was challenged and revoked by the European Patent Office (EPO) following opposition from the Indian government.

  1. Geographical Indications (GI): India has protected several traditional products as GIs, which help preserve their distinctiveness and prevent their unauthorized use. For example, Darjeeling Tea, Banarasi Silk, Kanchipuram Silk, and Pashmina Shawls are some of the traditional products protected by GIs in India.
  2. Traditional handicrafts: The Indian government has also taken steps to protect traditional handicrafts under IPRs. For example, the Madhubani painting style from Bihar, the Chanderi sarees from Madhya Pradesh, and the Kashmiri papier-mâché products have been protected under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, and the Designs Act, 2000

Balancing the benefits and risks of Traditional Knowledge Protection:

Balancing the benefits and risks of traditional knowledge (TK) under intellectual property rights (IPRs) is crucial for promoting sustainable development and protecting the rights of indigenous communities.

On one hand, IPR protection can help preserve and promote TK, contribute to economic development, and prevent misappropriation and exploitation of TK. It can also encourage innovation and foster international cooperation.

On the other hand, IPR protection can also pose risks, such as the potential for misappropriation and exploitation by dominant actors, and the restriction of access to TK for local communities. It can also limit the ability of communities to freely use and transmit their own knowledge and may result in the commodification of TK.

Therefore, a balance must be struck between protecting TK under IPRs and respecting the rights and interests of indigenous communities. This can be achieved through the involvement of indigenous communities in the process of TK protection, the development of fair and equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms, and the recognition of TK as a collective and communal heritage that cannot be owned by any one individual or entity.


In conclusion, traditional knowledge is a valuable and irreplaceable part of our cultural heritage. While efforts to protect and preserve traditional knowledge through IPRs have been somewhat contentious, it is clear that a balance must be struck between protecting traditional knowledge and promoting innovation. Policymakers must listen to the concerns of indigenous communities and work towards a more equitable and respectful approach to the protection of traditional knowledge. This may involve developing new legal frameworks or working within existing frameworks.

As the debate continues, let us not forget the sage advice of Confucius, who said, “Study the past if you would define the future.” Let us all work together to ensure that the rich tapestry of traditional knowledge is woven into the fabric of our future innovations.

Harsheeta Tiwari

Greetings, earthlings! The name’s Harsheeta Tiwari, and I’m a content curator with a love for botany, books, and banging tunes. I’m also a coffee aficionado, but let’s be real, who isn’t these days? When I’m not nerding out over plant life or sipping on a cup of joe, I’m usually immersing myself in research papers on everything from politics to the mating habits of snails (yes, that’s a real thing).

But my interests don’t end there. I’m also a bit of a music snob, with a love for Classic Rock, Metal, Jazz, Indian classical, and even Qawali. If it’s got a beat, chances are I’ll be jamming to it. And when I’m not rocking out or reading up, I love to get out and and meeting new people and collecting their stories. It’s all about the personal treasures, you know? ( says a thief too :’)

As an author, I resonate with Hemingway’s famous quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing can be a beautiful and painful process, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it to create something that truly speaks to us and our readers.

So if you want to talk books, plants, music, or just have a good old fashioned chat, hit me up. I’m always down for a laugh ,a good time and a cup of tea/joe.
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