Leveraging Traditional Knowledge on the Medicinal Uses of Plants within the Patent System: The Digitisation and Disclosure of Knowledge in South Africa

24 June 2015

Traditional knowledge (TK) plays an important role in the global economy and is valuable not only to those who traditionally depend on it in their daily lives, but also to modern industry, especially the global biotechnology, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations. Yet the exploitation of TK by these industries does not usually lead to corresponding benefits to indigenous communities either in the form of attribution or compensation. Such misappropriations of TK are aided by the fact that the global intellectual property (IP) regime as presently structured is based entirely on the traditionally western or conventional description of knowledge, as are its conceptions of individual intellectual property ownership. In response to the fact that their calls for the reform of the global patent system have not be heeded, most developing countries, including South Africa, have resorted to the adoption of a radically different strategy in their approach to intellectual property, particularly as it concerns the protection of their TK from misappropriation. This is evident in the adoption of strategic measures in South Africa for the protection of various aspects of its TK forms from misappropriation, such as the National Recordal System (NRS) and Disclosure of Origins (DRs). This paper seeks to explore the implications of these measures in leveraging TK within the structure, content and conceptual framework of the patent system in South Africa. The focus is on TK associated with the medicinal uses of plants (TKMUP).