Intellectual Property Law and the Protection of Traditional Knowledge

Charles McManis, Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law and director of the LLM Program in Intellectual Property and Technology Law

Growing biopiracy concerns have fueled urgent calls for a new system of legal protection for traditional knowledge. Detractors of the current patent systems say that the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities does not readily fit into the existing rules of the industrialized world and that these rules basically promote the interests of the industrialized world. However, Charles McManis, J.D., IP and technology law expert and the Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that “at least in the short run, existing intellectual property regimes offer the most realistic avenue for securing effective legal protection for traditional knowledge holders.”

McManis presented a paper on this topic during the “Ancient Wisdom/Contemporary Science: Traditional Knowledge in the 21st Century,” panel held on Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement science, held Feb. 16-20 in St. Louis.

Charles McManis
Charles McManis

According to McManis, existing IP rules, the closely related law of unfair competition, and associated contractual mechanisms can provide far more comprehensive legal protection for the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples than is generally acknowledged.

“Minor modification of the patent application process could not only affirmatively protect the genetic resources of developing countries but also help prevent authentic instances of biopiracy,” he says.

“Creating a completely new system is likely to be fraught with far more practical and theoretical difficulties than would be involved in modifying the current patent system to require disclosure of the origin of relevant genetic resources and evidence of prior informed consent of those providing such resources and/or any associated traditional knowledge as a condition for enforcing otherwise valid intellectual property rights.”