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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

Protecting Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expression

If you are like me, you have grown up in a family with many idiosyncrasies, traditions and shared knowledge. The implication of this is that there can be a specific way to do nearly everything. I can recall the countless times my grandfather and other relatives taught me the great lessons of the family: how to win at marbles, how to change a tire, how to marry a man with a good job (that lesson was always complex). Years later, I look back and realize what was taking place- a transference of knowledge and skills. While it may often seem that you are the sole recipient of this knowledge base, a similar transfer is happening in communities all over the world.
For Indigenous populations, much of the information which informs their culture is passed down orally. This includes the community know-how, known as Traditional Knowledge (TK) by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Traditional Knowledge encompasses everything from innovations and skills to specific environmental and medical practices (i.e. Traditional Chinese Medicine).
Distinctive cultural expressions are also a large part of the cultural identity transmitted from generation to generation. These are known as Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) and are often called “expressions of folklore.” If TK is the knowledge base of a community, then TCEs are the distinctive signs and symbols associated with it. TCEs transmit core values and beliefs through dance, music, ceremonies, narratives, architecture and other various forms of artistic expression.
While the definitions of Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions are still being explored, they share common characteristics. Both are a part of the cultural identity which distinguishes one community from another. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has recognized the distinct nature of these types of intellectual property and the unique challenges that come with protecting them. Furthermore, WIPO has emphasized that the preservation of cultural heritages around the world is paramount.
There are various types of protection that are currently being implemented to protect these indigenous resources. While TCEs can be protected under many existing systems, trademarks can be utilized in identifying authentic indigenous arts. Some countries are enacting specific legislation to address the positive protection of TCEs and TK. Many countries and communities are creating TK databases as evidence for prior art in defending against exploitive claims to patent certain Traditional Knowledge. WIPO is also creating a TK toolkit for those documenting it.
In a world that is increasingly globalized, it is vital to protect these distinct, vibrant cultures. I am pleased to see that WIPO is acting in light of this and am confident that the world of intellectual property will be better for it.
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