India's Traditional Knowledge Digital Library
December 11, 2009 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Fed up with foreign companies patenting traditional medicine from India, the country's top scientific body is compiling a giant database of everything from yoga positions to medicinal fruit juice.

The initiative is designed to fight what traditional medical workers, and their supporters, view as bio-piracy: the monopolization (usually through intellectual property) of genetic resources and traditional knowledge or culture taken from peoples or farming communities that developed and nurtured those resources.

Two early cases: The US granted a patent to the University of Mississippi to use turmeric to clean wounds (granted 1995, rescinded 1997), and the Europe Patent Office issued a patent to W R Grace to use neem oil as a fungicidal (granted 1994, revoked 2000).

Also: Bikram Choudhury patents his version yoga (previously).

Back to the article: The TKDL already contains 30 million pages and more than 200,000 medicinal formulas derived from herbal and mineral-based treatments originating in India and abroad, such as ayurveda, unani, siddha, as well as yoga techniques.
posted by kanewai (13 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 201 megatons each, nobody fucks with me." - Bikram Choudhury
posted by mullingitover at 2:04 PM on December 11, 2009

Hmm. The double-blinds and all of that to prove that a traditional remedy actually works would seem like a valuable part of the process - take away the patents and is there actually an incentive for that?
posted by Artw at 2:14 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, just not one of profit.
posted by Saydur at 2:16 PM on December 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Europe Patent Office issued a patent to W R Grace to use neem oil as a fungicidal

Actually, if you read your own link, you'll see that the patent granted by the European Patent Office was for a very specific composition incorporating neem oil. It was cancelled in opposition, after it was shown that the same composition had been used in field trials in the eighties. And BTW, the US Department of Agriculture was a co-owner.

As for the "patented" yoga asanas, what Choudury tried to do was to assert a copyright, something rather different (and which had most IP lawyers ROFLing).

The whole "biopiracy" issue is very much a red herring. All major patent offices keep quite comprehensive prior art collections, and even if they do occassionally blunder, being granted a manifestly invalid patent isn't exactly a blessing.

So, while keeping such a database isn't a bad thing per sé, I suspect that it won't be very relevant. This is a purely political move, and possibly a boondoggle for some contractors. India would do better to rather hire more examiners for its own woefully understaffed patent office.
posted by Skeptic at 2:39 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not even into yoga, but I've always wanted to kick the piss out of Bikram Choudury. The guy just seems like such an industrial-strength douche.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:49 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the problem I have with understanding patent law is because I still think of it in the sense of invention. Really it just seems to mean "I call dibs". The notion of patenting a non-GM fruit or an herb (apparently without any synthesis or modification) seems absurd and is an excellent illustration of the nature and reach of corporations.
It is amusing that India in an effort to protect it's perceived patentable property is posting it on the internet, in multiple languages. I prefer to think of the TKDL as an effort to thwart insane patent law.
Patent law makes me angry. I wonder if I can patent anger? If I can the internet will owe me untold illions.

On preview: Skeptic am I misunderstanding something? When I read this from the 'tumeric' link above, "A U.S. patent on turmeric was awareded to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1995, specifically for the "use of turmeric in wound healing." This patent also granted them the exclusive right to sell and distribute turmeric.[1]" it seems to me they attempted to patent an application rather than a product of synthesis or modification. I don't even know if that's a distinction in patent law but it seems it should be.
I know it's a complex subject so a point toward any links would be great. I take a stab at increasing my understanding of patent law occasionally and always come away more confused than when I started.
posted by vapidave at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2009

Nitpick: Bikram didn't try to patent his yoga sequence, he tried to copyright it. Huge legal difference. And what he tried to copyright was not the poses themselves, which are centuries old, nor just their sequence, nor their names, but the combination of the sequence of poses and his own commentary on those poses (i.e., the specific instructions imparted during the class). He doesn't claim to own the individual asanas, just like Mariah doesn't claim to own a high C) There's some nuance here that merits examination.

I'll try to analogize: Imagine I am a performance artist who interprets early Greek folk songs (and thus uncopyrightable as to their words and basic melodies, since no one knows who wrote them) using a banjo and a Country Western arrangement. As an artist, I can copyright my original arrangements of those Greek songs, as well as audio recordings of them, as well as video recordings of my performances of them. Of course, anyone else could record songs using those same greek folk melodies, and they could even sing them in a country and Western style, as long as they weren't identical to my particular arrangements.

In the Bikram case, any yoga teacher could teach a class that incorporates the 26 poses in their class, even in the same order if they like, even holding the poses for the exact amount of time he recommends. What they couldn't do is incorporate the whole verbal schtick he employs during the classes. Bikram has also trademarked his name, so if you want to set up a yoga studio that uses a mirror, a hot sweaty room, and 26 poses, you can't call it Bikram Yoga unless you get his permission.

(Not Bikramist, Not For Stealing Traditional Knowledgist)
posted by piedrasyluz at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2009

Vapidave; "I wonder if I can patent anger?"
Unfortunately, there is a whole website devoted to prior art on this topic for Americans... to get meta, it's most likely anger ON or relating to the topic of Patents/copyrights/trademarks/ and the theft of future generations (of Americans) culture and heritage... but you do have hope, I think with a few word changes, your idea may be a gold mine (note, use of the phrase 'goldmine' in relation to a bitterness regarding the power of a corporation over individuals, and their culture, is henceforth Mine.)
posted by infinite intimation at 4:03 PM on December 11, 2009

Sorry for the terminology error on patent/copyright ... though my intent there was to acknowledge a previous, related MeFi discussion.
posted by kanewai at 4:19 PM on December 11, 2009

vapidave We are not talking about the same patent. The FPP mentioned a US patent about using turmeric for cleaning wounds and a European patent about using neem oil as a fungicidal. You can patent both new compositions and new uses for existing compositions. In any case you can only validly patent something which is new and inventive, which is why both patents were cancelled. In the case of the turmeric patent, it was a clear fuckup of the USPTO: the patent covered any use of turmeric in cleaning wounds, and turmeric had been used as antiseptic for millenia. It must be noted, however, that the two "inventors" named in the patent were Indians or Indian-American themselves. Moreover, under US patent law, patent applicants are required to disclose to the USPTO any prior art of which they are aware themselves before the patent is granted: failure to do so is considered "inequitable conduct", which makes the patent unenforceable even when valid.
The European "neem oil" patent was a much more specific patent over the use of a particular composition comprising neem oil as a fungicide. It wasn't a patent on neem oil, or on using neem oil as a fungicide in general. It was finally invalidated, not because neem oil was known, or because using neem oil as a fungicidal was traditionally known, but because the opponents could show documentation showing that that particular neem oil-based composition had been used as a fungicide in field trials a few years before, and papers had been published describing it.
Patent law is far more logical and fair than you believe it to be. This doesn't mean that it can't have some outrageous outcomes when applied by (fallible) patent attorneys, examiners and judges. But remember this basic rule when mass media treat complex matters: when a headline is too complex to be true, then it possibly isn't.

The whole "biopiracy" issue is a red herring, and merely a stick to beat the TRIPS agreements. TRIPS is often presented as an evil plot by the US to impose lax patent granting standards on the Third World, when in fact, it has always been far, far easier to get a patent granted in almost any Third World country than in the US. The Indian Patent Office in particular is, as I said, ridiculously understaffed.
Now, the one type of patent which a number of developing nations (and even some developed ones) refused to grant before, and are now obliged to grant because of TRIPS are patents on (new and inventive) pharmaceutical compositions. Now, there are ethical reasons to debate whether pharma patents are good for developing countries, but it's also worth pointing that, in particular in India, a large generics industry flourished thanks to this exclusion, and that behind much of the vilification of TRIPS there is also a handful of very large generics makers which are no less profit-oriented than their Western counterparts.
posted by Skeptic at 4:43 PM on December 11, 2009

I figured that it was money that was the real subject being cast in a nationalistic light to move public opinion by one side in the debate. I also wasn't taken in by the notion of biopiracy, DNA sails across borders irrespective of Customs. What still strikes me as strange though (and to be clear I'm looking for clarification) is this: "You can patent both new compositions and new uses for existing compositions."
As I'm understanding it "new compositions" refers to either created or merely identified compositions. Patenting created compositions makes sense to me because they are, well, created. Patenting compositions, molecules and others that are pre-existing is insane.
Let me put it this way: in the view of patent law is there any compound or molecule, pre-existing or not, that can't be patented?
posted by vapidave at 6:13 PM on December 11, 2009


We need a notion of "national patents" where university researchers compete for grants to carry out all the trials and mostly complete the approval process, then any generic drug producer could get their particular manufacturing approved, and start selling the drug, with the proviso that all labor had to occur inside the country holding the patent. It'd create a level playing field among the different generic drug producers while removing the all advertising and publicity waste.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2009

One of my colleagues wants to study a disease that has potential to harm US agriculture. The disease is currently in India, and he's been trying to get some isolates of the pathogen to study. The Indian government won't let him have any for fear that the US will try to patent something without cutting India in. Years have passed, and no progress has been made in the negotiations. India might be able to make this work if it had a more efficient bureaucracy.
posted by acrasis at 10:12 AM on December 12, 2009

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