Traditional Indian knowledge to be protected in Europe

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The Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the European Patent Office (EPO) recently signed an access agreement under which the EPO has agreed to consult the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) before granting patents. The TKDL is a list of traditionally known Indian drug formulations. It contains a 24 million-page searchable database that translates text from Sanskrit, Urdu, and other regional languages into English, German, French, Spanish and Japanese. The agreement is likely to result in at least 40 European patent filings, which may otherwise have been successful, being rejected by the EPO.

India has fervently strived to protect traditional knowledge. Even the Indian Patents Act, 1970, does not allow traditional knowledge to be patented. The country has long been trying to resolve this problem, but in the meantime a string of traditional Indian products, some of which have known medicinal properties, have been patented overseas. The last decade or so has witnessed the granting of patents for turmeric and basmati rice by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and the granting of a patent for neem (a medicinal plant often used in toothpaste) by the EPO. Following lengthy legal battles, some of these patents were ultimately reversed through the efforts of India-based organizations such as the CSIR.

A number of patents on different asanas (positions of yoga) have also been embroiled in long-standing litigation. A further 2,000 patents based on traditional Indian knowledge could potentially be challenged, but the lack of financial resources has so far deterred any such action. It is hoped that the new agreement between the TKDL and the EPO will protect traditional knowledge and prevent future disputes from arising.

The Indian government is in talks with the USPTO with the aim of extending the initiative to the US.

The legislative and regulatory update is compiled by Nishith Desai Associates, a Mumbai-based law firm. The authors can be contacted at [email protected] Readers should not act on the basis of this information without seeking professional legal advice.