Combating biopiracy: Use existing IP systems

Expert Comment

Concerns over biopiracy have fueled urgent calls for a new system of legal protection for indigenous biological materials and knowledge. Detractors of the current patent systems say that the knowledge of traditional cultures and communities does not readily fit into the industrialized world’s definition of intellectual property (IT); critics argue that existing laws basically promote the interests of the industrialized world. Charles McManis, J.D., intellectual property and technology law expert disagrees.

McManis, 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.

According to McManis, current IP rules, including the closely related law of unfair competition and their 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. The revision could be as simple as requiring disclosure of the origin of relevant genetic resources as well as 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.”