India taps ancient medical database to protect IP

Indian government taps the country's digital library of 270,000 ancient Indian medicine formulations to amend and remove 100 international patents. Unilever and Procter & Gamble were among companies affected.

An online catalogue containing 270,000 ancient Indian medicine techniques has been used to amend and remove 100 international patents over the past decade.

According to the Indian government, as of February 2013, this online database had been cited on over 100 occasions to assert the rights of health knowledge that had existed in the public domain for thousands of years. A keyword search on the site found: 68 cases of withdrawn patents; 32 cases where patents were amended; and 24 occasions where the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) had declared a patent application "dead".

Unilever and Procter & Gamble were among the international companies affected by these citations.

As of February 2013, this traditional knowledge digital library (TKDL) had documented 270,815 traditional medicine techniques of four millenia-old Indian health disciplines, comprising:

- Ayurveda (75 texts) 96,075

- Unani (10 texts) 151,480

- Siddha (50 texts) 21,690

- Yoga (15 texts) 1,570

On April 8, India's Minister for Commerce, Industry and Textiles Anand Sharma addressed the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and pointed to TKDL as a possible solution to the "extensive bio-piracy" of traditional knowledge, according to a statement released earlier this week by the ministry.

"India has been at the forefront for bringing this agenda on the negotiating table and for the last one decade, we have been trying to build a consensus for a binding treaty on traditional knowledge. I hope that WIPO shall be able to bring these negotiations to culmination," Sharma told delegates.

In his speech, titled "Innovation and development: the Indian experience", the minister added that the Indian IP regime balanced the rights of the few creators and consumer masses. "It fosters technological innovation by providing inherent incentives through exclusive private IP rights, but also recognizes the need to protect the interest of users' rights," he said.

According to the ministry, the first entries were submitted to the TKDL in March 2003. To translate and digitize the data into five international languages--English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish--ayurveda and yoga experts worked with patent examiners, IT experts, scientists, and technical officers.

While this knowledge exists in the public domain, such insights were previously limited to scholars who could properly interpret ancient texts written in old languages, such as Sanskrit. Otherwise, it was passed down by word of mouth.

"It has become imperative to safeguard the sovereignty of this traditional knowledge and to protect it from being misappropriated in the form of patents on non-original innovations, and which has been a matter of national concern," the TKDL Web site states.

This online catalogue is the result of a collaboration between the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Ministry of Science and Technology, the Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy), and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.