Understanding traditional knowledge with the help of neem, turmeric and basmati case

Traditional knowledge and its relationship to the formal IP system has emerged as a mainstream issue in international negotiations on the conservation of biological diversity, international trade, and intellectual property rights including the TRIPS Agreement.

Understanding traditional knowledge with the help of neem, turmeric and basmati case
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Traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge system that many societies throughout the world have accumulated over time. Such information has been used and handed down across numerous generations after amassing throughout time. It mainly relates to the local environment and includes agricultural knowledge, such as how to cultivate, environmental knowledge, and understanding of herbal remedies (Interns, I. (2021). Traditional knowledge and its relationship to the formal IP system has emerged as a mainstream issue in international negotiations on the conservation of biological diversity, international trade, and intellectual property rights including the TRIPS Agreement. (Roohi, M. (2018).


Understanding traditional knowledge with three controversial patent cases in the US related to neem, turmeric, and basmati patent.

A bio-pesticide made from neem extracts was the subject of the neem patent. The therapeutic benefits of turmeric were the subject of the turmeric patent. The patent for basmati related to a brand-new kind created by Rice Tec, a US business. (Thikkavarapua, P. R., & Chandrashekaran, S.)

The incidents involving turmeric and neem motivated India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to take a more active stance against the theft of Indian traditional knowledge by foreigners. Based on the knowledge gained from the turmeric case, the council decided on a course of action. They assumed that the turmeric patent had been granted because American patent examiners were unable to find any evidence that such applications of turmeric were well-known at the time. (Fredriksson, M.)


The Neem tree and its therapeutic benefits have been discussed in ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts dating back to 5000 BC and it is used till date as bio pesticide and medicine. In India, in addition to being utilised for germicidal purposes and pesticides, this tree is also used to wash teeth. From its root to the crown, the tree is considered legendary.

W.R. Grace and the US Department of Agriculture initially submitted the request for issuing a patent for neem to the European Patent Office for a neem oil mixed fungicide for the "method of controlling fungi on plants." (Balasubramanian, S. (2017). This patent was granted in the year 1995.

In the same year,  the three organisations the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), based in Germany, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, Delhi, and the Green Party in the European Parliament, Brussels filed a legal opposition against the grant of this patent at the European Patent Office (EPO). The primary argument in opposition was that the fungicidal properties of hydrophobic extracts of neem seeds had been widely known and utilised in India for centuries, both in Ayurvedic medicine to treat dermatological conditions and in traditional Indian agriculture to prevent fungal infections from destroying crops. Since this traditional Indian knowledge had actually been known to Indians for a very long time, the patentee's argument for novelty had been refuted by the evidenced prior public use. The second argument made was that the patent violated "morality" because the so-called inventors sought to monopolise ownership of a technique that is a part of Indian traditional knowledge. The Neem patent became the first instance where US and the European patents were accused of being infringed upon through biopiracy. In 2005, the European Patent Office (EPO) cancelled the aforementioned contested patent. (Roohi, M. (2018).


The University of Mississippi Medical Center was given patent rights in 1993 by the US PTO for a method of treating wounds by giving turmeric to patients who had them. However, India has long employed turmeric for medicinal purposes. The tuber turmeric, which is stored almost indefinitely when dried, is something Indians are constantly aware of from an early age. Prominent in local cuisine and a key component of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, both of which use it to cure a variety of illnesses. Cancer, liver diseases, digestive problems, and inflammation are just a few of the medical conditions that its use has been proven to aid with.

Turmeric is used as a cooking ingredient, a colour, and a litmus test for a chemical analysis. In reality, the patent was cancelled in 1997. Although the method was not original and had been conventionally used in India for thousands of years, the turmeric patent stood for two years despite this. This was subsequently established by old Sanskrit manuscripts that detailed turmeric's broad and varied use throughout India's history. After going through re-examination procedures, the patent was ultimately cancelled in 1998. (Greeshma R and Saleem Ahmed, 2017)


In the beginning, Ricetec was granted a patent for cultivating the rice crop, creating similar crops, and recognising rice using the Starch Index test. The business was satisfied that its patent covered a novel variation of basmati. It was suggested that the term "Basmati" is not generic in nature to the Indian subcontinent. It went on to say that "Basmati" does not imply a specific region and is considered to be in the "public domain."

Nevertheless, India expressed that more than 75% of the rice imported by the United States comes from nations such as Thailand, Pakistan, and India because it cannot be cultivated there. The legal theory that was so widely accepted held that the patent was both conventional and obvious. The patent's validity is now void or null and void. After a three-year battle, India created data and proof to refute the validity of the patent. Out of about 20 claims, the USPTO granted the patent for three hybrid basmati strains. Due to a clear divergence from the original strain of the crop, the remaining three basmati strains were granted protection.

Regarding the corporation's use of the geographical indication and trademark "Basmati," the USPTO declared that because it was not a location, a trademark, or a geographical indication in India like "Champagne, Porto, Burgundy, or Sherry," the company may use it. Since the crop was grown more widely across South Asia than in India, it was not a reliable indicator of location. The word "basmati" was ultimately denied to the patent holder by the USPTO following further appeals from Pakistan and India. Verma, A. (2020)


Even though the Traditional Knowledge has been recognised and utilised by indigenous tribes for many years, the age of globalisation has allowed for its flagrant misuse and the grant of monopolistic rights to few people. The IP community has recognised the significance of successful documenting of local TK, such as India's TKDL, which plays a role in defensive protection inside the current IP system. Traditional Knowledge ought to address issues of fair benefit distribution, environmental protection, the preservation of customs and culture, preventing unauthorised parties from abusing it, and promoting its application and significance for growth.


1.     Interns, I. (2021, January 12). Protecting traditional knowledge in India. Intepat IP. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.intepat.com/blog/traditional-knowledge-india/

2. Roohi, M. (2018). Intellectual property rights and traditional knowledge holders: relevant case studies. International Journal of Advanced Research, 6(5).

3. Thikkavarapua, P. R., & Chandrashekaran, S. (n.d.). Why the traditional knowledge digital library's existence deserves a thorough relook. The Wire. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://thewire.in/science/tkdl-csir-neem-patents

4. Fredriksson, M. (n.d.). Balancing community rights and national interests in international protection of traditional knowledge: a study of Indias Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01436597.2021.2019009

5. Balasubramanian, S. (2017, April 18). Traditional knowledge and patent issues: An overview of turmeric, basmati, neem cases. S&A Law Offices. https://www.mondaq.com/india/patent/586384/traditional-knowledge-and-patent-issues-an-overview-of-turmeric-basmati-neem-cases

6. Greeshma R and Saleem Ahmed (2017) 'Traditional Knowledge And Patent Issue Relating To And In Reference With Basmati, Golden Rice, Neem And Turmeric', International Journal of Current Advanced Research, 06(09), pp. 6142-6145.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.24327/ijcar.2017.6145.0881

7. Verma, A. (2020, September 27). Basmati rice and patent battle : when indigenous knowledge is patented for profit. IPleaders. https://blog.ipleaders.in/basmati-rice-patent-battle-indigenous-knowledge-patented-profit/