It’s patently absurd

August 27, 2007 at 3:00 am 4 comments

Kim photoDid you know that in 1997 a company in Texas, USA managed to get a patent for basmati rice, which meant that it would get a royalty payment when anyone else sold rice by that name? Or that two US University researchers were granted a patent for turmeric as a wound healing medicinal plant? Or that a staple food crop of the Andes – quinoa- is the subject of US patent 5,304,718 because two professors from Colorado State University are seeking to patent traditional quinoa variety, Apelawa?

Now, basmati rice and turmeric are simply part of the ancient cultural heritage of India and in the case of turmeric, its use is part of a complex web of indigenous medical knowledge. And quinoa (pronounced keen-wa and very tasty BTW) is a grain – the so-called Mother Grain of the Inca civilisation – that has a 5,000 year history.

But Western corporations and people seeking a fortune through patents increasingly raid the medicine chest of Indian and South American culture. The ridiculous patent on basmati rice was revoked in 2001 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after the Indian Government was forced to cough up 50,000 pages of evidence to show that the basmati rice grown for centuries in India was one and the same thing as the rice the Texas company had patented. This case highlights how patents are being filed for combative business purposes, rather than encouraging creativity or inventors. The problem with patents is that to check the validity of a claim, patent offices need to have access to and examine documentation relating to the claim and examine patents of the same kind. In Western countries, this means checking out journals, databases etc and does not encompass folklore or oral traditions.

But clearly when ancient knowledge is buried in poems, literature and music, patent offices have a difficult time accessing the information they need to grant the patent and indigenous knowledge is vulnerable to exploitation. Under British colonial rule, India’s cultural heritage and medicinal knowledge languished. Ancient plant-based remedies and information about herbs and plants were enshrined in the three main healing traditions of India: Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha. Celebrating the colourful diversity of India’s history and culture, remedies are often found in old poems and in languages such as Tamil, Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. Traditional medical knowledge was shared and transferred orally via stories, poems, music and so on. Without a single source or library for Indian expert knowledge, the West can freely plunder.

But NewsHour reports on the Indian Government’s efforts to protect and preserve medical knowledge against the onslaught of recent patents against time-honoured yoga positions. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) project was established in 2002 and aims to digitise 5,000 years of ancient texts, manuscripts and traditional formulas in Hindi and English (and later French, Spanish and Japanese). Costing $2 million, approximately 30 million pages of medical knowledge will be digitised and made available as an electronic encyclopedia by the end of 2007. Photos, drawings of plants and scans of original texts will be included.

This is a great initiative by the Indian Government and patent offices will be able to access TKDL to check for existing knowledge in artistic or musical form before granting a patent. At least 150,000 plant-based remedies will be digitised and you can imagine the wealth of indigenous knowledge suddenly available, which could lead to new, natural drugs and herbal remedies. 1500 asanas (yoga postions and postures) will be digitally preserved. Hopefully, it will block bio-piracy as traditional knowledge will now be in the public domain and so we won’t see another company try to patent turmeric or basmati rice.

The Indian Government has waged long battles to have patents revoked: a two year struggle against the turmeric patent and a ten year tussle to revoke a patent on the neem tree. I can’t recall where I recently read too that the Government is slugging it out over the claims of an Indian chap living in the US who has or is trying to patent traditional yoga postures. Really, how absurb is that! And according to BBC News, of the 5,000 patents awarded by the US Patent Office on medical plants up to 2000, 80% of the plants originated in India. And approximately 70% of people living in India use traditional remedies as primary health care. A patent grants a property right to whoever holds the patent and therefore excludes anyone else the right to make, use or sell the invention. Just think about how Western companies or individuals could literally hold to ransom people who have for thousands of years used traditional remedies. And if you think that couldn’t happen, read up on the Monsanto vs Schmeiser case (a Canadian farmer was pummelled by a biotechnology giant for infringing the company’s patent because he was allegedly growing a special kind of GM modified canola without a licence).

ThinkingShift has a number of readers from India, so if anyone knows more about this exciting project or others that preserve traditional knowledge, feel free to leave a comment. I do know of the Honeybee network in India – where students and teachers gather indigenous knowledge from communities.


Entry filed under: India, Knowledge Management, Patents.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bhasker Raj  |  October 9, 2007 at 1:47 am

    It is really absurd.

    The US Patent office should consider giving patent rights to ordinary household items.

    The very idea of patent rights becomes meaningless.

    The item is used by many people throughout the world.

    How can they pay for selling or buying this item.

    This problem should brought to the United Nations.

    Bhasker Raj
    Journalist and Author

  • 2. Pamela  |  January 22, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Is the patent office living on the same planet as the rest of us? If yes, surely they’ve heard of Basmati rice, turmeric and neem. It would seem simple enough then to use the internet to gather sufficient basic data that would demonstrate that granting a patent would be totally suspect.


  • 3. Patents  |  September 3, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Do you have another link for that Basmati rice patent? It is not working for me right now. Anyways, very interesting article. Thanks for posting!

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  September 3, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Hi Patents, mmm…seems that link is now kaput – so I’ve replaced it with a link to Wikipedia. The company in question is RiceTec. See heading in Wikipedia article, Patent Battle, for more info.


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