Draft Report on Traditional Knowledge Open for Comments

Geneva, August 11, 2000
Press Releases PR/2000/236

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is inviting public comment on a comprehensive study, the first of its kind, on the intellectual property-related needs of holders of traditional knowledge (TK). The report is based on hundreds of interviews conducted by WIPO during nine fact-finding missions in almost all regions of the world in 1998 and 1999. Comments on the draft, available at www.wipo.int/traditionalknowledge/report/, can be sent to WIPO until October 30, 2000, after which the report will be finalized for consideration by WIPO's 175 member states and other interested parties.

The fact-finding missions were designed to help WIPO identify, as far as possible, the intellectual property needs and expectations of TK holders. As the United Nations specialized agency responsible for promoting intellectual property protection, WIPO undertook the missions as part of a new program of activities, initiated by WIPO Director General Dr. Kamil Idris in 1998, to explore and study current approaches to, and future possibilities for, the protection of holders of the intellectual property aspects of TK.

The draft report first provides a basic, general introduction to the intellectual property system, emphasizing inter alia that intellectual property is a broad concept that is not limited to existing categories such as patents, copyright and trademarks but includes all productions resulting from "intellectual activity in the industrial, scientific, literary or artistic fields."

Also relevant is the fact that intellectual property is evolutionary and adaptive. New advances in technology - information technology and biotechnology in particular - and changes in economic, social and cultural conditions require continuous appraisal of the system and at times adjustment and expansion. This is often accompanied by controversy. The possible protection of tradition-based innovations and creations is a more recently articulated question.

A section of the draft report describes other multilateral institutions and initiatives in which TK protection is being addressed, while a further section presents information, with examples from the missions, on how informal intellectual property regimes and customary law are being applied to protect TK.

In its conclusion, the draft summarizes and discusses the main needs and expectations of TK holders as expressed to WIPO during the missions. These include, in the shorter term, testing the applicability and use of existing intellectual property tools for TK protection. In the longer term, persons interviewed called for the development of new intellectual property tools to protect TK and the elaboration of an international framework for TK protection. Persons interviewed also expressed the need to provide information and training to TK holders and government officials on intellectual property and traditional knowledge and to facilitate dialogue and contact on these issues between TK holders, the private sector, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders at community, national, regional and international levels.

The needs, as documented, pose challenges for the entire intellectual property community - national and regional intellectual property offices, collective management societies, the private sector, NGOs, civil society, consumers, and the international community, including WIPO. WIPO's program of activities on traditional knowledge for 2000 and 2001 was developed on the basis of information learnt during the fact-finding missions and WIPO's other traditional knowledge-related activities in 1998 and 1999.

Further exploration of the role of intellectual property in TK protection requires a technical understanding of intellectual property and how it may apply to specific uses of TK. For its part, WIPO will continue to address conceptual problems and to undertake a practical and technical examination of how intellectual property may be applied to various forms of TK. This will ensure an informed and realistic analysis of the intellectual property aspects of TK protection.

The fact that existing standards of intellectual property may not be in perfect harmony with elements of TK worthy of protection, should not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle, the draft report observes. Intellectual property has consistently evolved to protect new subject matter, such as software and layout-designs, the emergence of which was unforeseeable even twenty years earlier. Copyright protection has been extended to the digital environment and intellectual property is now moving forward to protect databases. "Given its evolutionary and adaptive nature, it is not inconceivable that the intellectual property system might provide effective protection for traditional knowledge," the draft report states.

The draft is currently available in English only. However, it will soon be released for comment in other languages. The 320-page report will shortly also be distributed in paper form. The final report, issued after the commenting process, will be published in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian.

For further information, please contact the Media Relations and Public Affairs Section at WIPO: