The next time you hear music or movie studios whine about the hazards of pirated downloads by struggling college students, give them a lesson on the theft of medicinal products and seeds from Asia, Africa and Latin America by their corporate buddies, will you?
For the past several decades, Western corporations have complained that piracy in developing countries of their intellectual property has cost them billions of dollars in profits. Microsoft is up in arms about pirated software in India and China, while the movie industry is livid over the piracy of its DVDs. You have no doubt heard the incessant industry refrains and occasionally perhaps even sympathized with the corporations.
What you likely haven’t heard of is the even larger and more pernicious piracy of traditional knowledge by some of the largest agricultural and chemical giants in the United States and Europe. Not only do these companies exploit impoverished tribes in some of the poorest regions of the world, in many instances they have patented their knowledge, giving the biopirates the exclusive rights to its commercialization.
In a handful of instances the crass abuse of the global patent system has ignited public fury and resulted in the reversal of the patents. The European Patent Office, for instance, revoked a patent issued to the American chemical conglomerate W R Grace for a neem insecticide after global protests and challenges by several NGOs. Patents for turmeric, Hoodia cactus, a Mexican yellow bean variant as well as a dozen other commonly known medicinal formulations or plant variants have been successfully challenged during the past decade.
But in this same period, tens of thousands of other patents have been issued by the U.S. and European patent offices. In fact, even though W R Grace’s neem patent was revoked, nearly 100 other neem patents derived from the commonly known and used properties of the tree by Indians over generations still remain on the books. India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library estimates that nearly 2,000 patent applications copied from traditional Indian medicinal formulations are submitted every year, or 20,000 in the past decade. A 1998 study of patents in Australia by the nonprofit ETC Group found that 10% of all plant patents were biopirated.
Greed is the primary impetus for biopiracy as new medicines can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to develop. Traditional medicinal formulations, by contrast, are already time tested and often available off the shelf, offering billions of dollars in risk-free rewards.
A patent is supposed to only be granted to a product or process that is novel or involves an inventive step. That is scarcely the case with biopirated patents as traditional medicinal systems — such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha in India, or Chinese or Amazonian traditional practices — have employed the products and techniques for centuries. Companies and university researchers circumvent the requirement because the “prior art” — the term by which previous knowledge on the subject is defined — is unknown to patent examiners since it only exists in oral traditions or unfamiliar texts. U.S. patent law requires applicants to disclose their awareness of related references to their claim and failure to do so can result in the invalidation of a patent. But biopirates observe the requirement in the breach.
The existing patent regime skewed in favor of Western companies has been preserved largely on the strength of American economic and political muscle. As the economic clout of Brazil, India and China rises, they will hopefully begin challenging the deception and hypocrisy that allows Western companies to exploit the poorest and most vulnerable communities on this planet.
Meanwhile, the next time you hear music or movie studios whine about the hazards of pirated downloads by struggling college students, give them a lesson on the theft of medicinal products and seeds from Asia, Africa and Latin America by their corporate buddies, will you?.