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14 May, 2007

India Nears Completion of Traditional Knowledge Library

India is nearing completion of a voluminous reference work known as the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) that will allow Western patent examiners to verify claims by people seeking to copyright, trademark or patent products and processes ranging from yoga to ayurveda.

The National Institute for Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) is putting the library together based on ancient transcripts in Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu and Persian. It is to be made available in French, German, Japanese and several other languages so that patent examiners can cross-check whether an application for patent is an original innovation or a copy of what already exists in other parts of the world, in this case India, according to Indian government officials.

Traditional medicines and life sciences are becoming hugely popular in the West as part of the health and wellness craze, generating a new niche market clientele for the travel & tourism industry as people seek out holistic, alternative therapies that stress prevention over cure.

The new multi-billion dollar market has resulted in a scramble to patent these products, processes and techniques which are also heavily marketed via the proliferating number of conferences on spas and “medical tourism.”

Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary Ajay Dua was quoted in a Press Trust of India report as telling a seminar organised by the Indian chambers of commerce and the World Intellectual Property Organization: “Even as this exercise (TKDL) is going on, 150 yoga asanas (postures) have been patented abroad…134 of these asanas were granted patent by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Close to 1,500 (postures) have been given trademark (elsewhere).”

Yoga “accessories” and “training aids” like mats, belts, socks, etc. are also being patented.

According to PTI, the estimated 30 million page TKDL library will be in electronic format, with texts, voice and visuals. It has involved around 100 experts working over the last five years.

The aim is to stop foreign practitioners and individuals, including Indian expatriates, from claiming copyrights. “Most of the misuse has been done by people of Indian origin living outside India and multinational companies. By the documentation, we hope we would be able to control it largely,” according to V.K. Gupta, head of a task force set up to oversee the compilation work.

One Los Angeles-based multi-millionaire yoga guru of Indian origin has popularised “hot yoga” – he reportedly developed 26 postures and two breathing exercises performed in a certain sequence in 105 degree heat – and claimed copyrights over it, according to an Indian media report.

Mr Dua says that foreign patent offices are not solely to blame. While traditional knowledge has been in public domain in India in various vernacular languages, the same was not accessible by patent examiners abroad, he told PTI.

The TKDL project is estimated to be costing US$ 2.5 million — far less than the legal costs India incurred in seeking to reverse previous such patents — such as that given to two expatriate Indians at the University of Mississippi Medical Centre on use of turmeric in wound-healing and a US firm which was granted a patent on basmati rice.

An op-ed piece in the New York Times on May 7, 2007 has further stoked interest in the issue.

The piece by Mumbai-born but US-based author Suketu Mehta said: “It’s a mystery to most Indians that anybody can make that much money from the teaching of a knowledge that is not supposed to be bought or sold like sausages. Should an Indian, in retaliation, patent the Heimlich maneuver, so that he can collect every time a waiter saves a customer from choking on a fishbone?”

He added, “It is worth noting that the people in the forefront of the patenting of traditional Indian wisdom are Indians, mostly overseas. We know a business opportunity when we see one and have exported generations of gurus skilled in peddling enlightenment for a buck.”

However, he continued, As Indians, these ‘gurus’ “ought to know that the very idea of patenting knowledge is a gross violation of the tradition of yoga.”

He said the fears “reflect India’s mixed experience with globalization.”

“Western pharmaceutical companies make billions on drugs that are often first discovered in developing countries — but herbal remedies like bitter gourd or turmeric, which are known to be effective against everything from diabetes to piles, earn nothing for the country whose sages first isolated their virtues.”

Said Mr Mehta: “Drugs and hatha yoga have the same aim: to help us lead healthier lives. India has given the world yoga for free. No wonder so many in the country feel that the world should return the favor by making lifesaving drugs available at reduced prices, or at least letting Indian companies make cheap generics. If padmasana — aka the lotus position — belongs to all mankind, so should the formula for Gleevec, the leukemia drug over whose patent a Swiss pharmaceuticals company is suing the Indian government.”

B.K.S.Iyengar, one of India’s most prominent Yoga gurus, said on his website: “It is misappropriation for anyone to hoard or otherwise manipulate this knowledge in order to increase his or her status, personal power, or financial gain.”

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