First, it was raiding ships on the high seas. Then, with the advent of the information age, it was copying and downloading films and music. Today, the new frontier of piracy is “biopiracy,” when companies in wealthy nations patent indigenous medical and cosmetic remedies that have been used for centuries in poor countries. In 1999, for instance, New Jersey-based Pure World Botanicals obtained U.S. patents on aphrodisiacs derived from maca, an Andean plant Peruvians have long used to bolster fertility. The value of the U.S. market for maca-derived products was estimated to be more than $20 million in 2003.
Hoping to prevent wealthy corporations from staking claim to traditional remedies, some nongovernmental organizations and even a few governments are cataloging indigenous medicines and plant species in online databases. The American Association for the Advancement of Science maintains a database at shr.aaas.org/tek that is open to traditional knowledge holders who want to preempt patenting by others. Links to similar databases can be found on the Web site of the World Intellectual Property Organization (www.wipo.int/tk/en).
Some intellectual property experts, however, doubt that databases can prevent biopiracy. […]
[…] [Devinder] Sharma says that instead of relying on databases of traditional knowledge, developing countries should follow the example of China’s government, which has secured around 12,000 patents on its own traditional medicines.