African Countries and the Quest for Traditional Knowledge Protection

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June 24, 2013 — If recent headlines and conversations on twitter are anything to go by, then many countries on the African continent including, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa are beginning to look deeper into various parts of their traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and genetic resources that may be eligible for Intellectual Property Protection.

In April 2011, University of Minnesota Press released a post titled: Examining Ghana’s Use of Intellectual Property Law to Protect Adrinka and Kente Fabrics. The post featured an Interview with Boatema Boateng, author of the book The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here.  The book focused on the appropriation and protection of adinkra and kente cloth in order to examine the broader implications of the use of intellectual property law to preserve folklore and other traditional forms of knowledge. In the book, Boateng analyzed the appropriation of Ghanaian and other African cultures for global markets.

This past May, BBC News published an article, Brand Maasai: Why nomads might trademark their name. The article sparked an outpouring of reaction over the Internet with many people questioning whether or not this can be done.

Discussions about protecting traditional knowledge are not new. The intrusion into the traditional knowledge held by indigenous people termed Bio Piracy, has been the subject of many discussions and working groups. For example, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) recently put up the latest revision of the draft articles on traditional knowledge as noted at the close of the 24th session of the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore.

 So what are the legal implications for Nigeria — Should we like India and South Africa domestically protect our wealth of traditional knowledge? Would we one day wake up and find that some of our beautiful designs (e.g. Aso Oke & Agbada); the ingredients used in some of our traditional alcoholic beverages; the Ijele masquerade; the amazing Atilogwu dance; and many other Nigerian traditional knowledge systems used in the treatment of diseases, the subject of contention in an intellectual property litigation or worse viewed as public domain? It just may be time to develop systems to archive traditional knowledge in digital and other forms to prevent future exploitation and for preservation of knowledge.

This article is intended to provide general information about the subject matter. Professional legal advice should be sought about specific circumstances.


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About Bob Aroture 558 Articles
Bob is a Senior Editor and Content Development Manager at Nigerian Law Intellectual Property Watch. He holds a BS degree, with a major in biochemistry. He works directly with the Newsroom Team. His focus areas are technology and innovation, and pharmaceutical technology. Email: