Biocultural Heritage

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WIPO – World Intellectual Property Organisation

wipo logoThe World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) aims to promote intellectual property rights (IPRs) worldwide. In 2000, it established an inter-governmental committee to address IPR issues relating to genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore, including how to protect traditional knowledge from misappropriation and how to share benefits from commercialisation equitably. The Committee has developed a set of Policy Objectives and Principles for protecting traditional knowledge. It has also explored disclosure requirements for genetic resources and traditional knowledge in patent applications.

Progress has been very slow. Developing countries have repeatedly insisted they need a legally binding treaty to protect traditional knowledge, while industrialised countries have opposed this. In 2010, the WIPO General Assembly extended the Inter-Governmental Committee’s mandate for two years, and set it the objective of reaching agreement on a text for an international legal instrument (or instruments) which will ensure effective protection for traditional knowledge , traditional cultural expressions /folklore and genetic resources.

The Committee has done some good technical work examining traditional knowledge protection from an intellectual property perspective. However, indigenous and local communities have raised some concerns.

  • Indigenous and local communities cannot actively participate in the policy process. Although they can make statements, these are usually only allowed at the end of each session, and governments have no obligation to take indigenous concerns on board.

  • WIPO negotiators are legal experts from patent offices whose main reference points are exiting intellectual property right models, rather than the customary laws of indigenous and local communities. Although WIPO has conducted studies on customary laws, and its principles recognise their importance, industrialised countries have insisted that traditional knowledge protection should be consistent with existing IPR standards, which in many cases conflict with those customary laws.

  • WIPO has no mandate to promote indigenous peoples’ wellbeing or to conserve biodiversity. Its policy focuses on protecting only the intellectual component of knowledge systems, and not rights over the associated genetic resources, landscapes, cultural and spiritual values and customary laws. It recognises national sovereignty over natural resources, but not customary rights over bio-genetic resources.

  • Outside the Inter-Governmenal Committee, the WIPO seeks to promote and harmonise western IPR standards through global treaties, which can threaten the rights of indigenous and local communities over their biocultural heritage.

Further reading


WIPO/IGC Policy Objectives and Principles on Traditional Knowledge Protection

WIPO/IGC Study on Customary Law and Intellectual Property

Press release: UN agency ignores indigenous approach to knowledge protection.