Table of Contents

Indigenous Intellectual Property

Indigenous Intellectual Property

A Handbook of Contemporary Research

Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property series

Edited by Matthew Rimmer

This Handbook considers the international struggle to provide for proper and just protection of Indigenous intellectual property. Leading scholars consider legal and policy controversies over Indigenous knowledge in the fields of international law, copyright law, trademark law, patent law, trade secrets law, and cultural heritage. This collection examines national developments in Indigenous intellectual property from around the world. As well as examining the historical origins of conflicts over Indigenous knowledge, the volume examines new challenges to Indigenous intellectual property from emerging developments in information technology, biotechnology, and climate change.

Chapter 13: Pressuring ‘suspect orthodoxy’: traditional knowledge and the patent system

Chidi Oguamanam

Subjects: law - academic, cultural heritage and art law, human rights, intellectual property law


Europe invented the modern patent system. Fillipo Brunelleschi, the 14th-century avant-garde Venetian architect, laid the foundation for that system by securing the right to commercial exploitation of his invention through blackmail. Since then, the patent system and its reputation has been no stranger to controversy. After its consolidation, the modern patent system has resisted change except when change serves the interests of its architects and sponsors. On that basis, the recent history of the patent system reflects strategic accommodation of inventions in the realms of chemistry, life sciences (biotechnologies)and, lately, business methods and inventions in information and communication technologies. These developments depict the convenient, albeit discriminatory malleability of the patent system. Historically, that plasticity of the patent system has not been invoked to accommodate traditional knowledge. When it comes to traditional knowledge, the patent system relapses into questionable orthodoxy as a rigid creation incapable of recognizing alternative forms of innovation outside the paradigm of western science and technology. How to deal with traditional knowledge remains a thorn in the side of the patent system. The subject of traditional knowledge is arguably the single most enduring source of pressure on the patent system through its nearly six-hundred-year history. This chapter links the patent system’s interface with traditional knowledge to the latter’s experience with and treatment in the history, philosophy and sociology of science.

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