The concept of 'bioprospecting' or 'biopiracy' has become a hot topic in recent years. Zoë Clyde-Watson takes a look.
Biopiracy refers to the practice of commercially developing naturally occurring biological materials, such as plant substances or genetic cell lines, by a technologically advanced country or organisation without fair compensation to the peoples or nations in whose territory the materials were originally discovered.
Inevitably, this leads to a conflict of interest between foreign multinationals attempting to enforce IP rights, and developing countries trying to protect their cultural heritage. Many countries with a long history of traditional knowledge are hampered by the fact that very little of it is accessible in written form. Instead, knowledge is simply passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next, making it incompatible with modern IP laws, both in terms of ownership and prior art effect.
Various initiatives have been adopted in order more fairly to reflect the contribution traditional knowledge makes to the modern world, particularly in the field of medicine. These include creating digital knowledge libraries to ensure that traditional knowledge has a prior art effect, and collaborative projects or benefit-sharing arrangements with local indigenous communities.