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[NEW DELHI] India's plans to document and protect traditional knowledge in a digital library are coming under fire from critics who warn that the initiative could inadvertently help promote biopiracy.

The critics argue that the library may be playing into the hands of foreign companies by providing easy access to India's traditional knowledge. They also complain that companies that use the information to develop new products, such as drugs, will be under no obligation to share any profits with local communities.

But proponents of the library respond that it is the only way to stop foreign companies from exploiting India's traditional knowledge through the patent system. Raghunath Mashelkar, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, who is heading the initiative, says that such databases are essential for India to avoid expensive legal battles over patent applications in this field.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), as the initiative is known, will record details of medicinal plants in a searchable database available on DVD and on the Internet. The move is an attempt to stem the tide of foreign patent applications on traditional Indian products such as basmati rice, turmeric and neem.

One of the initiative's strongest critics is Devinder Sharma, president of New Delhi based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, who argues that the country's indigenous knowledge, which has so far been protected by language and cultural barriers, "is now being handed over officially to drug companies on a readily accessible digital platter."

M.D. Nair, a Chennai-based consultant on patent issues, also doubts whether the library will succeed in protecting India's traditional knowledge because, at present, there is no way to prevent patents on inventions derived from such knowledge.

He argues that the TKDL can benefit India only if companies agree to share the profits from a product that could not have been invented without access to the library. This is already happening in some areas of biotechnology, he says, where private and public agencies that have placed genetic sequences in the public domain for research purposes require the users to pay royalties if they develop a product.

Furthermore, Nair says, the TKDL cannot prevent "'utility" patents being taken on new uses that are not mentioned in the TKDL. Nair argues TKDL will not stop biopiracy unless the sovereignty granted for bio-resources under the Convention for Biological Diversity is extended to products which are derived from such resources. In practice, that means insisting on informed consent from the owner of the traditional knowledge, and benefit-sharing.

In response to such criticisms, V.K. Gupta, director of the National Institute of Science Communication, argues that the fears of exploitation are misplaced. He points out, for example, that patent examiners will not be allowed to access the library until a legal framework protecting its contents has been established. Such a framework is currently under discussion within the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), which has endorsed the TKDL initiative. "If we do not find a safe mechanism we will not release TKDL to companies," Gupta says.

A report released in September by the London-based Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, however, of which Mashelkar was a member, seems to echo the concerns of at least some of the Indian critics. The report recommends that digital libraries should form part of the minimum search documentation for prior art for national patent offices. But it also cautions that traditional knowledge holders should have the final say as to whether their knowledge should be included in databases.

Regarding benefit sharing, the report states that patent applicants should disclose the geographical origin of genetic materials and associated traditional knowledge, and should provide evidence of prior informed consent for use of the material and equitable sharing of benefits.

The library was due to be completed in September, but has run into delays — for reasons unconnected to criticism of the project, says Gupta. When it becomes operational, the massive database, which will be available in English, Spanish, German, French and Japanese as well as Hindi — will be linked to the International Patent Classification system.

Digital documentation of 35,000 formulations in Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine based on herbs, will be ready next year, Gupta says. Two-thirds of the work is already complete.

Photo credit: WHO/P. Virot