11 February 2009

India Fights Patents with Huge Prior Art Database

One of the many problems with the patent offices around the world is that they are often unaware of prior art, granting patents for so-called inventions that are, in fact, common knowledge. In the computer world, there have been a number of efforts to provide prior art to patent offices, either after a patent is granted, in order to have it rescinded, or – even better – as part of the examination process. That's fine for a community with easy access to online source materials, but what about other fields, where prior art exists in other forms like books, or perhaps orally?

This is a particularly thorny problem for the sphere of traditional medicine. Substances derived from plants, for example, may have been in use for literally thousands of years, and yet patents may still be granted – especially in Western countries ignorant of other ancient medical traditions.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is the case of turmeric, commonly used as a spice in curries, for which patents were granted in 1995 on its wound healing properties by the US Patent Office, even though these supposedly novel uses had in fact been known for millennia.

To combat this problem, and to prevent its huge traditional knowledge basis being exploited in this way, India has created the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) database, which was unveiled on 2 February, and is now available to the Patent Examiners at the European Patent Office for establishing prior art in case of patent applications based on Indian systems of medicine.

Here's some background information on how the database came to be created and was set up:

The genesis of this maiden Indian effort dates back to the year 2000, when an interdisciplinary Task Force of experts was set up by AYUSH and CSIR, to devise a mechanism on protection of India’s traditional knowledge. The TKDL expert group estimated that about 2000 number of wrong patents concerning Indian systems of medicine were being granted every year at international level, mainly due to the fact that, India’s traditional medicine knowledge exists in languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Tamil etc. and was neither accessible nor understood by patent examiners at the international patent offices due to language and format barriers.

The TKDL breaks these barriers and has been able to scientifically convert and structure the information available in languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil, in open domain text books into five international languages, namely, English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish, with information contents in 30 million A4 size pages, with the help of Information Technology tools and a novel classification system - Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC).

This is a huge, multilingual resource – something that could only be put together with governmental support and resources. It is also fairly specific to the domain of traditional knowledge. Nonetheless, it's a great example of how an extensive prior art database can be created and then made readily available to the patent authorities in order to help prevent patents being granted unjustifiably. It's a pity that we are unlikely to see anything quite like it for other knowledge domains.

No comments: