Documenting Traditional Medical Knowledge

Ryan Abbott, Documenting Traditional Medical Knowledge, World Intellectual Property Organization (March, 2014)

52 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2014 Last revised: 2 May 2015

See all articles by Ryan Abbott

Ryan Abbott

University of Surrey School of Law; University of California, Los Angeles - David Geffen School of Medicine

Date Written: March 1, 2014


Traditional medical knowledge is experiencing increased attention worldwide in light of global health care demand and the significant role of traditional medicine in meeting the public health needs of developing countries. Traditional medicines already comprise a multi-billion dollar, international industry, and the biomedical sector is increasingly investigating the potential of genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Documenting and protecting these medicines is becoming a greater priority.

Traditional knowledge has historically been at odds with modern intellectual property systems designed to protect innovations such as new pharmaceutical drugs. However, as the financial value of many forms of traditional medicine becomes recognized, traditional knowledge holders and nations rich in genetic resources are arguing for greater protection through non-conventional systems of intellectual property protection. Traditional knowledge holders are increasingly demanding fair and equitable distribution of benefits from the commercialization of traditional medicine, as well as the prior informed consent of indigenous peoples to prevent misappropriation. Many problems associated with the protection of traditional medical knowledge lack clear solutions. In attempting to protect traditional medicine, traditional knowledge holders are confronted by a confusing and diverse group of national and international policies, regulatory systems designed primarily to accommodate pharmaceutical medicines, safety and efficacy concerns, and challenges to ownership.

This text is designed to assist traditional medical knowledge holders, government representatives and third-party collaborators to think about issues of intellectual property law specifically related to traditional medical knowledge. It is not intended to provide legal advice, but rather to help stimulate thinking about traditional knowledge and to provide illustrative case studies.

There is no generic way to protect traditional medical knowledge. Traditional knowledge holders should carefully consider identified community goals for the use of traditional medicine and the risks and benefits of documentation. Whether traditional medical knowledge is documented can have far reaching consequences on intellectual property protection, commercialization and promotion of traditional medicine, regulatory submissions and interactions with collaborators. It is important that traditional knowledge holders be adequately informed to safeguard their reputations and interests when interacting with third parties.

Hopefully, this text will help traditional knowledge holders better understand the issues related to traditional medicine and intellectual property and make informed decisions about the best use of their knowledge.

Keywords: Traditional knowledge, genetic resources, intellectual property, patent

Suggested Citation

Abbott, Ryan Benjamin, Documenting Traditional Medical Knowledge (March 1, 2014). Ryan Abbott, Documenting Traditional Medical Knowledge, World Intellectual Property Organization (March, 2014), Available at SSRN:

Ryan Benjamin Abbott (Contact Author)

University of Surrey School of Law ( email )

Guildford, Surrey GU2 5XH
United Kingdom

University of California, Los Angeles - David Geffen School of Medicine ( email )

1000 Veteran Avenue, Box 956939
Los Angeles, CA 90095-6939
United States

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