On Display: Indigenous Knowledge Systems & Intellectual Property Rights

Indigenous Knowledge Systems are increasingly seen as positive ways for problem solving.  Traditional livestock practices, traditional leather processing or traditional healing practices fit to the local environment and might have a positive impact on development or at least in the struggle for survival. Especially indigenous knowledge in traditional agricultural systems can be used for poverty and hunger eradication.

Traditional knowledge is closely related to intellectual property systems. How to preserve, protect and equitably make use of this indigenous knowledge are highly disputed questions. These address areas as diverse as food and agriculture, the environment, notably the conservation of biological diversity, health, including traditional medicines, human rights and indigenous issues and aspects of trade and economic development. In short: who profits from selling traditional medicine or from traditional performances?

Traditional cultural expressions (or “expressions of folklore”) include music, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives. They are integral to the cultural and social identities of indigenous and local communities, they embody know-how and skills, and they transmit core values and beliefs.

Under the questions “What are they? Who owns them? What kinds of intellectual property protection should they have? What challenges do they present to librarians?” IFLA (e.g. in Durban 2007) dealt with these problems. For libraries questions very different from those we face in handling published materials are raised. It is about preservation of context, cultural sovereignty and respect. This led e.g. to an ethical code for digitization of indigenous material.

Some of the more general problems are the following:

  • Traditional Cultural Expressions are group-related, orally transmitted and are changing constantly, therefore they cannot be ascribed to one individual author and his intellectual property which then might be protected.
  • If there shall be a similar protection to copyright: Who controls the traditional knowledge of the group, how speaks for the whole group, who belongs to the group, how long shall protection last? How about inspiration and cultural adaptation? Should intellectual property protection be limited in duration or perpetual? How about benefit sharing? In South Africa the ministry of economics wants to push tourism and create new jobs in this area. How about the relation between state and group revenue (crown copyright)?

Further information:

=> For a thorough introduction see Wend Wendland’s paper „Intellectual Property and Traditional Cultural Expressions/Expression of Folklore“.

=> For several years now WIPO has been investigating what kinds of protection should be given to folklore and other “traditional cultural expressions”; see their “Key Resources“.

=> The IFLA “Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters” (CLM) has also dealt with these problems; compare their publications.

=> The most recent literature on the topic you can find on ilissAfrica.