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Biopiracy of Traditional Knowledge by Mayurakshi Sarkar

 Biopiracy of Traditional Knowledge

Traditional knowledge (TK) is knowledge system that is held by the indigenous people, often relating to their surrounding natural environment. When traditional knowledge is used without permission by the researchers, or exploit the cultures they're drawing from – it's called biopiracy. Relationship of patent laws with the traditional knowledge is truly opening a can filled with worms. It is not because of the biopiracy debates but due to genetically modified organisms and "patents on life" debates as well.

Turmeric, a well-known home remedy in Indian houses since ages had been claimed for registration under Patent laws of U.S. It is a tropical herb grown in the east India and has been used as a medicine, food ingredient, a dye, etc. It is also being used as blood purifier, anti-parasitic, healing wounds, treating skin infections, etc. The product is used as an essential ingredient in Indian kitchens in cooking dishes. It is also used as an essential ingredient in cooking many Indian dishes.

However, in 1995, two India based researchers, Suman K. Das and Hari Har P. Cohlyin University of Mississippi Medical Centre claimed patent. They contended that they had discovered turmeric's healing property and to our surprise, they were granted patent over the same in March, 1995. However, Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) objected the patent granted. It provided evidences to the USPTO about the prior use of turmeric and documented evidences of the prior art.

Instead of the fact that the use of turmeric in Indian houses is a well-known fact, it was very difficult to find any documented information on the use of turmeric for wound healing. After an extensive research, 32 references were located in different languages namely Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi. USPTO realised their mistake and revoked the patent, stating that the claims made in the patent were obvious and anticipated, and agreeing that the use of turmeric was an old art of healing wounds.

Similarly, the Neem tree (AzadirachtaIndica), a large tropical evergreen which can grow up to 30 meters tall and 2.5 meters in girth. A part of the tree is the seed which is covered by a greenish yellow or yellow cover. The origin of the tree is unknown, however, in India, the tree spreads widely. It is estimated that the subcontinent contains approx. 18 million trees. The tree is useful in many areas such as, dental hygiene, contraception, pesticides, medicines, etc.

The Neem tree has been used by Indian farmers as natural pesticide and it has also been researched by the Indian scientists. However, a western entomologist, Heinrich Schmutterer, in 1959 witnessed locused plague all over the Sudan and Neem trees were the only ones that survived the onslaught. He immediately started researching about the Neem tree. He found out many pesticidal qualities of the tree. However, it has been well-known fact among Indian farmers that the seeds of the tree and to a lesser extent leaves contains active substance azadirachtin. 

Traditionally patents have applied exclusively to inventions, granted as a reward for creativity and to support advancement. Naturally happening substances similar to DNA, were excluded from such laws. At that point, in 1980, Ananda Mohan Chakraborty, a scientist working for General Electric, filed an application for a patent on a bacterium that he had altered genetically with the goal that it could devour oil.

The patent and trademark office dismissed Chakraborty's application on the ground that the bacterium was a product of nature. Chakraborty sued, contending that, by modifying the life form, it was his inventiveness that made the bacterium important. The case ended up before the Supreme Court, which by a vote of five to four decided for the specialist. "The fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for the purpose of patent law," the Court wrote. Chakraborty's creation turned into the first living thing to get a patent.


Recently, in India, a private bill has been presented, which after passage will be known as the Protection of Indian Traditional Knowledge Act 2016. The bill includes the characteristics of traditional knowledge and what it incorporates, and makes the Central and State Governments the custodians of all the traditional Knowledge in India. The turmeric battle, more commonly known as 'haldighatikiladai' casts a light on the urgent need to protect Traditional Knowledge, the inadequacy of the laws surrounding its protection


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