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What Do Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions Have to Do with Intellectual Property Rights?

J. Janewa Osei-Tutu

©2017. Published in Landslide, Vol. 9, No. 4, March/April 2017, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Who can claim a right to yoga, to the use of the Hoodia cactus plant for weight loss, or to the use of turmeric for healing?1 Should commercial entities be able to use the designs and names of indigenous groups to market their products?2 Some consider this to be the “common heritage of mankind,” but not everyone agrees. In particular, the communities that generate this knowledge consider it to be part of their cultural heritage.3 The ongoing debate about traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions in relation to intellectual property centers on whether the knowledge and cultural representations of indigenous and local peoples, as well as their names, are free for all to use—even for commercial enterprises seeking to profit from the use. Traditional knowledge, as will be explained in more detail below, refers to intergenerational knowledge and practices that pertain to an identifiable community.

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