Pressuring ‘Suspect Orthodoxy’: Traditional Knowledge and the Patent System

Europe invented the modern patent system. Fillipo Brunelleschi, the 14th-century avant-guard Venetian architect, laid the foundation for that system by securing the right to commercial exploitation of his invention through blackmail. Since then, the patent system and its reputation has been no stranger to controversy. After its consolidation, the modern patent system has resisted change except when change serves the interests of its architects and sponsors. On that basis, the recent history of the patent system reflects strategic accommodation of inventions in the realms of chemistry, life sciences (bio-technologies) and, lately, business methods and inventions in the information and communication technologies. These developments depict the convenient, albeit discriminatory malleability of the patent system.

Historically, that plasticity of the patent system has not been invoked to accommodate traditional knowledge. When it comes to traditional knowledge, the patent system relapses into questionable orthodoxy as a rigid creation incapable of recognizing alternative forms of innovation outside the paradigm of western science and technology. How to deal with traditional knowledge remains a thorn in the side of thepatent system. The subject of traditional knowledge is arguably the single most enduring source of pressure on the patent system through its nearly six-hundred-year history. This chapter links the patent system’s interface with traditional knowledge to the latter’s experience with and treatment in the history, philosophy and sociology of science. It argues that despite the patent system’s opposition to traditional knowledge, at both practical and theoretical levels, as a matter of current reality, traditionalknowledge has defied that system without much notice being taken of this transformation. Indeed, traditional knowledge challenges the patent system to re-think the importance of epistemic pluralism and equity in innovation and knowledge production which that system has historically ignored.


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Oguamanam, Chidi, Pressuring ‘Suspect Orthodoxy’: Traditional Knowledge and the Patent System (Jan 1, 2015). Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, Matthew Rimmer, ed. (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015) pp. 313-333 (Chapter 13).


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