Indigenous voices being marginalized at WIPO?

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is currently playing host to the 30th session of the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore (backgrounder available here).


The meeting is being held in Geneva, Switzerland, where delegations from each of WIPO's 188 member states are in the process of negotiating language for future international legal instruments to ensure the effective protection of traditional knowledge (TK), traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) and genetic resources (GR). The theme of the 30th session is Genetic Resources, with particular emphasis on developing mechanisms to avoid erroneously granted patents and ensuring and tracking compliance with access and benefit sharing disclosure frameworks.


While Indigenous peoples are represented at the event, an interview by Intellectual Property Watch is raising serious questions about the level of support WIPO provides to traditional knowledge holders, as well as the level of interest WIPO members have in even considering Indigenous perspectives on these issues.


Among the concerns being expressed by Indigenous participants:

  • There has been a slow, steady move away from an "effective and balanced" approach to protecting competing rights and toward a markedly pro-capital, pro-Western framework grounded in IP protections
  • Indigenous participation is being hampered by a chronic lack of funds; as these supports are made via voluntary contribution by WIPO member states, there is concern these funds could dry up completely if members wish to further marginalize Indigenous voices
  • The increasingly narrow focus on Westernized conceptions of IP that are fundamentally incompatible  with Indigenous worldviews
  • Current references to UNDRIP Article 31 in the negotiating text remain "bracketed," indicating a lack of consensus among WIPO members and the strong resistance of several countries to acknowledge the sui generis nature of Indigenous TK


“Traditional knowledge is not a form of information and not a form of intellectual property,” stressed Preston Hardison, a policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes in the United States and WIPO delegate. Rather, it is “a form of cultural heritage…a way of life; it is embodied in the land, in the ancestors, in their relationship with their kin.” By construing genetic resources derived from Indigenous TK as patentable information, Hardison worries that misappropriation of these resources will become an even greater problem than it is now.


Hardison's remarks to WIPO members can be read in their entirety here.

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