Preserving Indian Traditional Knowledge

In this article, you will read about traditional knowledge and its most famous cases and WIPO initiatives towards preserving India’s traditional knowledge.

What Is Traditional Knowledge?

According to intellectual property rights (IPR), traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities worldwide. It includes knowledge about agriculture, medicine, wildlife, and other fields that have been developed over generations and passed down through oral traditions.

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Traditional knowledge is often associated with cultural and spiritual practices and is closely tied to a particular region’s land and natural resources.

Traditional knowledge is considered a valuable and irreplaceable resource critical to the survival of many communities, and its protection is seen as an essential part of preserving cultural diversity and promoting sustainable development.

However, traditional knowledge is also at risk of exploitation and misappropriation, particularly in the context of bioprospecting and other forms of commercialization of natural resources.

Ayurvedic Medicines

An example of traditional knowledge is the use of Ayurvedic medicine in India. Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine that has been practised in India for thousands of years. It is based on the use of natural remedies, including herbs, spices, and minerals, to treat various ailments.

The knowledge of Ayurvedic medicine has been passed down through generations of practitioners. Many of the remedies used in Ayurveda are derived from plants and other natural sources unique to India. This is an example of traditional knowledge with significant cultural, social, and economic value and could benefit from stronger legal protections.

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Basmati Rice Case

The case of Basmati rice is a prime example of the exploitation of traditional knowledge of India by other countries. Basmati rice is a long-grain aromatic rice grown in the Indian subcontinent.

In 1997, the US company RiceTec Inc. was granted a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on a strain of rice they claimed to be a new variety of Basmati rice.

This led to a massive outcry in India as Basmati rice has been grown in the region for centuries and is an integral part of the country’s culture and cuisine. The Indian government and several NGOs challenged the patent, arguing that the strain of rice was not a new variety but merely a minor modification of the existing Basmati rice.

After a lengthy legal battle, the USPTO finally revoked the patent in 2002. The decision was based on the fact that the company had not provided sufficient evidence to prove that the rice strain significantly differed from the traditional Basmati rice. The USPTO also acknowledged the importance of Basmati rice as a traditional crop in India and Pakistan.

This case highlights the importance of protecting indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. It also underscores the need for a robust legal framework to prevent commercial entities’ misappropriation of traditional knowledge.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been working towards developing such a legal framework through the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC).


The case of turmeric is another example of traditional knowledge of India being exploited by foreign entities. Turmeric is a common spice used in Indian cuisine and has medicinal properties. In addition, it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a remedy for various ailments.

In the 1990s, two expatriate Indians in the United States filed for a patent on using turmeric for wound healing. The patent application claimed that their formulation of turmeric and chitosan, a natural polymer derived from the shells of crustaceans, was a novel invention. They also claimed that their formulation was superior to the traditional use of turmeric in wound healing.

This patent application was opposed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an Indian government agency that works on scientific research and development.

CSIR argued that the use of turmeric for wound healing was well-known in India and had been in use for centuries. They also provided evidence of prior art, including ancient Ayurvedic texts that described the use of turmeric for wound healing.

After a lengthy legal battle, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) revoked the patent in 1997. The USPTO acknowledged that the use of turmeric for wound healing was part of the traditional knowledge of India and, therefore, not patentable. This case became a landmark case in the fight to protect traditional knowledge and prevent its exploitation by others.

The turmeric case highlighted the importance of documenting and protecting traditional knowledge. It also demonstrated the need for better international frameworks to prevent foreign entities’ misappropriation of traditional knowledge.

In response to such cases, India has been pushing for adopting an international legal framework to protect traditional knowledge, particularly at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

WIPO: A Promoter of Intellectual Property

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is an intergovernmental organization that acts as a global forum for intellectual property (IP) services, policy, information, and cooperation.

WIPO is responsible for promoting and protecting IP worldwide by offering services such as registering patents and trademarks, providing arbitration and mediation for IP disputes, and offering technical assistance and capacity building for IP systems in developing countries.

The World Intellectual Property Organization also plays a crucial role in developing international treaties and agreements related to IP, such as the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and the Patent Cooperation Treaty. It also facilitates the negotiation of new treaties and agreements, such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty.

In addition, the World Intellectual Property Organization supports developing and implementing national IP policies and strategies. It works closely with governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations to promote a balanced and effective IP system that fosters innovation, creativity, and economic development while protecting the public interest.

Initiatives Taken by WIPO to Preserve Traditional Knowledge

The World Intellectual Property Organization has taken several initiatives to address the issue of protecting traditional knowledge (TK) and folklore, especially in India. Some of the significant initiatives are:

1. Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore (IGC)

WIPO established the IGC in 2000 to discuss intellectual property and traditional knowledge issues. The committee aims to develop an international legal framework for protecting traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions (TCEs), and genetic resources. India has been an active participant in the IGC discussions.

2. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL)

WIPO, in collaboration with the Indian government’s Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), developed TKDL in 2001. The database contains information on traditional Indian medicine and knowledge, including over 34 million pages of text and images. The database helps prevent the misappropriation of traditional knowledge and allows patent examiners to access the traditional knowledge before granting patents.

3. Collaborative Efforts With the Indian Government

The World Intellectual Property Organization has worked closely with the Indian government to address the issue of protecting traditional knowledge. WIPO has supported the Indian government’s efforts to develop national laws and policies on TK and TCEs. WIPO has also organized several capacity-building programs in India to raise awareness about traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights among indigenous communities, policymakers, and researchers.

4. Folklore and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs)

In 2014, the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted the “Protecting Traditional Cultural Expressions: Draft Articles on the Protection of Traditional Cultural Expressions/Folklore” to guide countries on the protection of TCEs. The articles recognize the importance of protecting TCEs as part of cultural heritage and encourage the participation of indigenous communities in the protection process.


The World Intellectual Property Organization has taken several initiatives to address the issue of protecting traditional knowledge and folklore, particularly in India.

These initiatives include the establishment of the IGC, the development of TKDL, collaborative efforts with the Indian government, and the adoption of draft articles on the protection of TCEs.

These efforts have helped raise awareness about the importance of protecting traditional knowledge and cultural expressions and guided countries on protecting them.

Read Next: Claiming Intellectual Property Rights for Indian Traditional Knowledge

Suhani Dhariwal
WritingLaw » Law Articles » WIPO Initiatives to Preserve Traditional Knowledge in India Law Study Material
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