Traditional Knowledge Digital Library is a useful weapon against wrongful patent
Safeguarding ancient wisdom
Vinod Kumar Gupta is used to ministers and other VIPs from across the world beating a path to his office and wanting to “see” the unique institution that he has created. Gupta is the man behind the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a valuable tool in the battle against theft of traditional knowledge. For India, it has proved effective in checking the piracy of ancient wisdom related to medicinal plants in an extremely cost-effective manner. Now other developing countries whose TK is being plundered want to replicate it.
TKDL, located in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, is not the easiest of places to find even with a map. And when you do find this internationally recognised institution there is nothing much to see barring some graphic representations of traditional Indian systems of medicine. TKDL is a technology platform. It uses the tools of information technology and a novel classification system to make available the traditional medical knowledge of India to patent offices in the major developed countries so that what was known for centuries is not patented by unscrupulous individuals, companies and research organisations as something they claim to have discovered or invented.
All of this required not just high-end technology, but also skills of a high order: people with knowledge of ancient texts, modern medicine and technical terms of foreign languages. The price tag for this unique, proprietary system: Rs 16 crore (around $3 million)—Rs 82 lakh in capital costs and the rest in recurring expenses, mainly salaries.
How effective is it? In the last three years TKDL has identified 1,000 cases of biopiracy of India’s TK. In 105 cases patent claims were withdrawn or cancelled by patent offices—decisions that were effected in just 4-5 weeks at zero cost. All that is required is an email to the relevant patent office. This is the biggest benefit for countries such as India which can ill afford the huge legal fees (a minimum $500,000) in fighting wrong patents across the globe. Or the time. For instance, it cost APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) seven years and Rs 7.62 crore in legal fees (Rs 5.1 crore to a foreign law firm) to fight malafide intellectual property rights on basmati rice. This does not include the tab for travel and administrative costs which could well have matched the legal expense.
Based on this, it would cost the country a whopping $200 billion to defend the 250,000 formulations now listed in the digital library. More significant, claim CSIR officials, is that TKDL is acting as a deterrent. A recent study reveals as much as a 44 per cent decline in patent claims filed on Indian systems of medicine. This is probably what prompted Peru, which has publicly declared its intention of setting up a similar institution, to send its Minister of Foreign Trade to meet Gupta earlier this year. Like India, Peru is a megadiverse country and has been waging an active campaign to protect and preserve its natural resources. Although its National Commission on Biopiracy is a good watchdog—a senior World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) official described the country as a leader in the fight against misappropriation—Peru says it wants an institution that will catalogue its rich biodiversity and determine the manner in which it should be accessed.
TKDL is work in progress and will continue to be so for a long time. Apart from the huge collection of ancient texts yet to be tapped, it also plans to access the database of all publicly funded national institutes. Already, it protects about a quarter of a million formulations culled from ancient texts. Its latest addition is yoga postures and the library has videos of the most common exercises. This is a response to the national furore over the increasing number of patents being granted in the West for yoga exercise which practitioners claim. Recognising India’s singular achievement, WIPO and CSIR held, in March 2011, an international conference on using TKDL as a model for protection of TK globally. That meeting drew 33 developing countries eager to have their own versions of this mechanism. According to WIPO, such a mechanism can fuel future innovation and benefit-sharing. There was widespread agreement about the value of TKDLs to protect against misappropriation of TK, as well as their potential in enabling further innovation, such as in the area of public health.
The irony is that TKDL’s repository is being ignored at home. The Indian patent office is reported to have allowed several patents that infringed TK and in some instances upheld claims that TKDL had managed to stop or amend abroad! A recent case was a patent awarded to Bengaluru-based Avesthagen for a formulation using jamun and cinnamon, a claim that CSIR had managed to thwart in the European Patent Office. But in the case of the Indian patent, CSIR seems to have been sleeping.
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