WIPO Member States Lay Foundations for Protection of Traditional Knowledge

Geneva, March 19, 2004
Press Releases PR/2004/378

A key committee of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) decided today on concrete steps for accelerated international work on protection of traditional knowledge (TK) and folklore (or traditional cultural expressions (TCEs). The WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) agreed on the development of the building blocks for the protection of TK and expressions of folklore.

This was the first meeting of the IGC since its mandate was renewed by the WIPO General Assembly in October 2003, with instructions to accelerate its work and focus on the international dimension of intellectual property (IP) and genetic resources, TK and folklore. The new mandate excludes no outcome for the IGC's work, and raised the possible development of an international instrument or instruments in this field.

This meeting builds on a progressive process of dialogue with TK holders, the sharing of national experience, and international policy debate within WIPO. This process began in 1998 and 1999 through consultations with some 3,000 representatives of indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders in 60 locations around the world. The needs and expectations articulated by those representatives, and the direction given by WIPO member states, guided the early, path-breaking work of the IGC from 2001 to 2003. This groundwork – a unique blend of practical experience, legal materials and policy ideas in this area – has already established a solid empirical and conceptual basis for more concerted and focussed international work. Charting this course also requires WIPO to work in a mutually supportive way with other international bodies on issues of concern to indigenous and local communities.

The IGC is now in a position to build on this body of experience and to move to a more concrete level in clarifying and addressing the specific policy choices for improved protection that are available at the community, national, regional and international levels, and in considering the possibility of an international instrument that many have called for.

During its meeting from March 15 to 19, the IGC commissioned the development of two complementary sets of core materials for TK and for folklore/TCEs. In each case, the IGC approved the development of an overview of policy objectives and core principles for protection, and an outline of the policy options and legal mechanisms, backed up by precise analysis of the implications of each option. This would form the essence of substantial outcomes of the Committee as an international framework for protection of TK and TCEs. The African group of countries submitted a text on objectives, principles and elements of an international instrument, or instruments. This proposal received widespread support in the Committee as a framework for its work.

The need to enhance the participation of indigenous and local communities in the work of the Committee continued to be a central concern – this was the first issue taken up by the IGC at this session. The IGC accredited ten additional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nine of which directly represented indigenous interests or communities, bringing the total to over ninety NGOs specially accredited to the IGC. The Committee also considered a range of practical steps to enhance the participation of representatives of TK holders, and launched a new website https://www.wipo.int/tk/en/igc/ngo/index.html to disseminate position papers of IGC observers that would enhance awareness of the perspectives and concerns of TK holders. The need for practical support, in the form of funding of participation, was identified as a major impediment to effective participation. The IGC agreed to look at possible structures for a distinct voluntary fund to overcome this hurdle. In the meantime it appealed to voluntary donors immediately to support the participation of representatives of accredited NGOs representing indigenous and local communities, so they can take part both in the IGC and in a consultative forum for indigenous and local representatives to be held in advance of IGC meetings.

Among the practical issues the IGC addressed were strengthening the defensive protection of TK and genetic resources against illegitimate patenting. It initiated work on improving understanding of the legal and practical basis of defensive protection, to strengthen its understanding of how different traditional knowledge systems, including orally-based knowledge systems, can be recognized and applied in the patent examination process. The IGC also considered a draft guide to assist custodians of genetic resources in negotiating effectively to safeguard their interests in relation to the intellectual property system, and called for comments and input for an enhanced draft.

The secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) reported to the IGC on the recent meeting of the Conference of Parties of the CBD (COP), including the positive reception given to a technical study on patent disclosure requirements relating to genetic resources and TK which the WIPO secretariat had prepared as an information resource for the COP. The COP recently invited WIPO to undertake further work in this area. Because the proposed work cut across the mandate of several WIPO bodies, the IGC suggested that the invitation be referred to the WIPO General Assembly for coordinated action.


The IGC's original mandate was to discuss IP issues relating to access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing, TK, and innovations; and traditional creativity and cultural expressions (expressions of folklore). Its renewed mandate calls for it to accelerate its work and to focus on the international dimension, without prejudice to other international processes; no outcome is excluded (the possibility of an international instrument or instruments was specifically mentioned). A recently published series of WIPO magazine articles describe the IGC and the issues it addresses in more detail, and consider future directions. These are available on line in Adobe PDF format. In the IGC's work, the terms ‘traditional cultural expressions' and ‘expressions of folklore' are used synonymously.

The IGC, established by the WIPO General Assembly in October 2000, with a renewal of its mandate in 2003, is open to all member states of WIPO. Other United Nations member states, intergovernmental organizations and accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may participate as observers. Some 184 accredited NGOs can take part in the IGC, including 93 NGOs especially accredited by the IGC, many of which represent the specific interests of indigenous communities and TK holders. At the IGC's request, the secretariat is continuing to develop and implement specific ways of further enhancing the participation of local and indigenous communities in the IGC's work.

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