A Handbook of Contemporary Research
Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property series
Edited by Matthew Rimmer
Chapter 13: Pressuring ‘suspect orthodoxy’: traditional knowledge and the patent system
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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