The government of India has granted the European Patent Office (EPO) access to its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). Loaded with ancient medical knowledge, the online database contains translations of manuscripts and textbooks in five languages, including English.
Traditional Indian medicines, comprising some 200,000 formulations, should from now on be safe from pirate-patenting in the west. Close to 2000 wrong patents of medicines prescribed under the Ayurvedic, Unani and Sidha systems are still being granted annually at the global level, causing financial loss to India. The most blatant examples are the grant of a patent on the wound healing properties of turmeric in 1995 by the US Patent and Trademark Office, and on the anti-fungal properties of neem granted by the EPO.
Development of the TKDL started in 1999 as a joint project between five Indian government organisations, including the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR). In total the project costs $2 million. Now, after over eight years of work by a team of over 200 scientists TKDL has been made available to the patent examiners from the EPO and its 34 member nations.
So far, foreign companies have got away with wrong patents because India’s traditional medicinal knowledge existed only in Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu and Tamil – languages which international patent examiners did not understand. But TKDL has scientifically converted the information into open domain textbooks in five international languages – English, Japanese, French, German, and Spanish.
All this information has been made available in 30 million pages to EPO. So far 81,000 formulations in Ayurveda, 104,000 in Unani, and 12, 000 in Sidha yoga have been digitalised under TKDL. However, TKDL’s information will be restricted only for patent search and examination purposes. EPO will not be able to disclose the information to a third party.
EPO examiners have been able to access the TKDL since 2 February 2009. Various other countries have also granted the EPO access to traditional knowledge databases. In 2008, the Chinese Patent Office (SIPO) opened its 32 000-entry database on traditional Chinese medicine to the EPO.
“Now patent examiners at EPO will be in a position to establish prior art in case they receive patent applications based on Indian systems of medicine. They can thus refuse the grant of new patent,” said V K Gupta, IT head, CSIR, who played a key role in creating the TKDL.
“For example, if someone wants to patent the sexual healing properties of white mulberry, examiners would know that such qualities already exist in Indian traditional formulations. If TKDL existed earlier, then international disputes regarding patenting of neem, turmeric and basmati would not have occurred,” Gupta added.
“The cooperation between India and the EPO brings advantages to both parties. It helps protect India’s traditional knowledge from misappropriation and gives the EPO additional relevant information for granting properly defined patents”, said Paul Schwander, Director of Information Acquisition at the EPO.
Till this development, all India could do was oppose a wrong patent in case it had the relevant information. It takes about five to seven years to oppose a granted patent at the international level and the process costs about Rs3 crore per case. Thus, the country has lost over 15,000 patents of medicinal plants to the West.
Patents have been granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) on the use of over 285 traditional Indian medicinal plants such as papaya, Indian long pepper, kali tulsi, pudina, ginger, aloe, isabgol, aaonla, jira, soybean, tomato, almond, walnut and methi. Ayush secretary S Jalaja said, “People will now think twice before even applying for such dubious patents.”
Unjustified patent claims based on traditional knowledge, or “biopiracy”, have recently made headlines. In 2008, the Indian government won a ten-year legal battle appeal against a patent application that had been granted for an anti-fungal product derived from the native Neem tree.
With the TKDL, patent examiners can now compare patent applications to existing traditional knowledge documented in this new source. Examiners can limit the scope of a patent or reject it altogether before it is granted. This can prevent lengthy,and costly opposition procedures.
Sharmaji is deeply involved with Ayurveda since 15 years. His interest and passion led him to launch AyurvedNews.com and AyurShop.in about a decade ago. Most of the Ayurveda news and articles on this site are approved or published by him.