In Box

Preempting Piracy

First, it was raiding ships on the high seas. Then, with the advent of the information age, it was copying and downloading films and music. Today, the new frontier of piracy is "biopiracy," when companies in wealthy nations patent indigenous medical and cosmetic remedies that have been used for centuries in poor countries. In 1999, ...

First, it was raiding ships on the high seas. Then, with the advent of the information age, it was copying and downloading films and music. Today, the new frontier of piracy is "biopiracy," when companies in wealthy nations patent indigenous medical and cosmetic remedies that have been used for centuries in poor countries. In 1999, for instance, New Jersey-based Pure World Botanicals obtained U.S. patents on aphrodisiacs derived from maca, an Andean plant Peruvians have long used to bolster fertility. The value of the U.S. market for maca-derived products was estimated to be more than $20 million in 2003.

Hoping to prevent wealthy corporations from staking claim to traditional remedies, some non-governmental organizations and even a few governments are cataloging indigenous medicines and plant species in online databases. The American Association for the Advancement of Science maintains a database at shr.aaas.org/tek that is open to traditional knowledge holders who want to preempt patenting by others. Links to similar databases can be found on the Web site of the World Intellectual Property Organization (www.wipo.int/tk/en).

Some intellectual property experts, however, doubt that databases can prevent biopiracy. When Pat Mooney, executive director of the anti-biopiracy Erosion Technology and Concentration Group, suspects an agricultural patent is pirated, he turns to a database of over 500,000 seeds run by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (www.singer.cgiar.org), a multinational organization funded by governments. The database entries, he finds, are rarely detailed enough to prevent patents. Patent offices — primarily in the United States, but also in Canada and Europe — appear either unwilling or unable to conduct deeper investigations. Mooney found 146 existing patents on plant varieties already documented.

Some experts even fear that databases of traditional plants and organisms may offer a good starting point for potential biopirates. "Companies spend billions looking for traditional knowledge," argues Devinder Sharma, chair of the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, a collective of scientists, farmers, and environmentalists. "With these databases we are simply handing it over to them." Sharma says that instead of relying on databases of traditional knowledge, developing countries should follow the example of China’s government, which has secured around 12,000 patents on its own traditional medicines.

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